Barcelona forward Lionel Messi puts best foot forward over tax charges

The world's greatest player in court over claims he defrauded authorites of millions of euros

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The Independent Football

With a wan half smile for the photographers, firmly looking ahead and a right thumbs up to a small crowd of supporters, Lionel Messi – widely considered to be the best footballer in the world – headed into a courthouse in the small town of Gava near Barcelona today to defend himself on charges of millions of euros of tax evasion.

Had it not been for the 26-year-old’s destination of Gava’s courtroom number three today, with his dark suit and sober white shirt and the police easing back photographers and fans behind lines of yellow crash barriers, the Barcelona forward could have been en route to accept yet another prize: like, say, another World Player of the Year award to add to the four the Argentinian has already collected.

Rather, Messi and his father, Jorge, responded to summons to make statements to a judge about the alleged non-declaration of income from the football player’s image rights, believed to be worth around €10.17m (£8.5m), between 2006 and 2009. They are accused of defrauding the exchequer by more than €4m.

Neither Messi, who moved to  Gava after signing for Barcelona in 2000, nor his father made statements as they entered the courtroom, although they were widely expected to maintain their innocence – as they did when Jorge Messi handed over €5m in back payments and interest  to Spain’s tax authorities in August. A prison sentence is technically possible for the evasion charges, but is thought to be very unlikely following last month’s payment.

With an estimated annual income of €12.8m from Barcelona, according to Forbes, and another €13m reported to come in from advertising, Messi is said to be one of football’s two best-paid players, together with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

But the 50 or so locals who gathered outside Gava’s court this morning alongside the numerous journalists seemed less interested in his finances and more in either getting an autograph or seeing Messi put on an impromptu display of football virtuosity in rather closer circumstances than Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium normally permits.

“Give him a ball and get him to do a few passes,” one Messi supporter shouted, whilst another made a noisy request for assistance with payments on his mortgage. Others, more restrained, opted for simple cries of “Champion!” or even “President!” – although given the allegations of years of backhanders from big businesses currently swirling around Spain’s premier, Mariano Rajoy, and the charges Messi faces, that was perhaps a two-edged compliment.

There was more applause than booing as the footballer entered the building. “I don’t think we really care too much about this,” Angel Edo, a Barcelona supporter from Gava and himself a sports athlete’s agent, told The Independent.

“I can’t imagine that Messi had anything to do with it, he’s just got his assessors and they’re the ones who handle all that sort of thing. His job is to score goals.”