Football star Lionel Messi to stand trial for €4.1m tax fraud

FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi is set to face trial for alleged tax fraud totalling more than €4m after a Barcelona high court threw out an impunity appeal by the footballer's lawyers.

The Barcelona Provincial High Court said yesterday there was evidence that the Argentinian star benefited by selling his image rights through a network of shell companies in tax havens Uruguay and Belize, established by his father, between 2007 and 2009.

Both father and son deny the charges but could now stand trial together after the court ruled it was not in a position to determine whether the younger Messi knew of the scheme, and that such a decision should be left for a court hearing.

The announcement is the latest twist in a two-year scandal which would be one of football's biggest ever tax trials and has generated rumours that Messi, considered by some to be the greatest footballer ever, was considering leaving Barcelona after feeling persecuted by the authorities.

The two Messis stand accused of defrauding the Spanish authorities of €4.1m in unpaid taxes by constructing an elaborate network of front companies abroad, through which the player's image rights were sold.

Messi is one of the most marketable faces in world sport and holds contracts with Adidas and Pepsi-Cola, among others. Forbes ranked Messi as the world's fourth highest-paid athlete this year, with $22m (€19.5) of his total $73.8m (€65.5m) earnings coming from endorsements.

In August 2013, the Messi camp voluntarily paid back €5m, which included the back taxes and added interest, but the Spanish authorities are continuing with the case.

Messi's lawyers have consistently insisted that the footballer should not be considered responsible for any alleged wrongdoing, with his defence team arguing that Messi had "never devoted a minute of his life to reading, studying or analysing" his image rights contracts.

However, the Spanish judges countered that, once he turned 18, Messi had ratified the contracts organised by his father. The authorities have also claimed that, in one of the shell companies, Messi is the sole partner.

According to a Bloomberg Business report, the Belize and Uruguay organisations employed companies in the UK and Switzerland to sell Messi's image rights on their behalf. In 2006, a UK company owned by Messi's father and the player's former agent signed the footballer to a six-year, €9m sponsorship deal with Adidas.

Messi's sponsors are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Other players from FC Barcelona, where Messi has spent the vast majority of his career, have

come under scrutiny for their taxes before. Former players Rivaldo and Luis Figo were ordered to pay fines of €2.8m and €2.5m respectively for violating Spain's tax code between 1997 and 1999. The players are accused of earning more than 15% of their income in image rights, which is prohibited in Spain.