Lionel Messi will today be facing his toughest opponent yet: the Spanish tax authorities.
The Barcelona star and his father have fallen foul of a major clampdown in the country against suspected tax evasion as it attempts to plug its vast deficit, projected this year to top 6 per cent of its entire GDP.
Now one of the most famous footballers in the world will appear in a Barcelona criminal court today accused of evading €4.2m (£3.5m) in tax on payments from Adidas, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and others. The Messis are alleged to have diverted €10m to low-tax destinations Belize and Uruguay between 2007 and 2009.
Sports stars are in the authorities' sights because they often use a tax scheme whereby they form image rights companies through which they are paid their sponsorship fees. The rights companies are often based in offshore tax havens and players can take their pay out of the company in the form of dividends or loans, evading yet more duty. Messi and his father Jorge deny the charges, with Jorge blaming a sports agent the family hired in 2005.
Critics say Spanish politicians have turned a blind eye to the tax affairs of high-profile clubs in order to curry favour.
"Every government knows it needs to have football supporting them," tax lawyer Pablo Alarcon told Bloomberg. "It's like the old Roman times, with bread and circuses. Give the people circuses and you can handle them."