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Is Soccer Great Lionel Messi Corrupt?

The stench of corruption is settling over world soccer like a poisonous fog, and players are paying the price. Not so the organization that runs the sport around the world.

Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty

Let’s watch, for a moment, the soccer player many people believe is the greatest of all time:

The ball slides into his path in a pocket of space, eight yards outside his opponents’ box. He lets it roll and then pokes it between two defenders to a teammate, darting inside towards the top of the box. The ball comes back and he plays it to another with a second touch, then he ghosts into the box where he waits, patiently, until his teammate shoots. In a flash he deflects the shot, with the speed of instinct, right past the goalkeeper.

Lionel Messi has scored, and it was not just any goal. It was his 72nd in the Champions League, more than anyone else in the history of Europe’s premier soccer competition. By the end of last month, he’d made it 74, and set the record for Spain’s La Liga along the way.

Messi is a phenomenon of world sport, a 5-foot-7 soccer giant. At 27, he has already won the Ballon d’Or —for the world’s best player—four times, and he led Argentina to the World Cup Final this summer as the player of the tournament.

Yet just two months before Messi claimed these latest records, a Spanish judge ruled he must stand trial on charges of tax evasion. He had lost his final appeal and now a yearlong investigation into his financial dealings between 2007 and 2009 has culminated in a criminal case that, should he be found guilty, could land him in jail for up to six years.

It’s certainly a special time for soccer and for shady financial dealings. Increasingly, the two seem to go hand in hand. FIFA, the sport’s governing body that oversees the World Cup, has been mired in corruption allegations for years, but recently the organization’s patrician façade has really begun to crumble. This week the full extent of the organization’s tainted largesse was revealed, as it emerged that Michel Platini, president of Europe’s soccer federation (UEFA), was given a Picasso in return for his support for Russia’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. That’s some bribe, but it’s not the first to change hands in the upper echelons of soccer governance.

In 2011, the head of Asia’s football federation, Mohamed bin Hammam, was banned for life for bribing other representatives to vote for him in the upcoming FIFA elections. The delegates were given envelopes containing $40,000 during a meeting about grassroots soccer initiatives. That same official—a Qatari billionaire—received a second lifetime ban for bribing the presidents of 30 African soccer federations to vote for Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup. The president of the North American federation, Jack Warner, was forced to resign after he was caught selling his World Cup bid vote to the highest bidder and colluding with bin Hammam.

The successful World Cup bids of both Russia and Qatar have come under relentless scrutiny that has ultimately changed little. An ethics report conducted by a former U.S. District Attorney was blocked at every turn and watered down by FIFA’s “ethics” panel. That investigator, Michael Garcia, attacked the published report as containing “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts.”

For all its flagrant indiscretions, though, FIFA has never run afoul of the law. Or, at least, the organization has never faced any semblance of criminal prosecution from anyone, anywhere. It’s easily conceivable that tens—and possibly hundreds—of millions of dollars have been embezzled, swindled, and defrauded by FIFA and its officials over the years, but the only penalties they’ve faced have been when sponsors, like Sony, dropped them. Yet their biggest star, a master practitioner of the sport, could face prison time for much less onerous financial crimes.

Something surely is amiss.

The allegations against Messi, an Argentine forward who plays for Spain’s FC Barcelona, first surfaced in June of last year. By September, he was flashing a thumbs-up to assembled fans as he walked into court in a Barcelona suburb. No agreement was reached that day, but eventually Messi and his father, Jorge, who doubles as his money manager (probably not the best idea in retrospect) agreed to pay $6 million in back taxes and interest. This was apparently in addition to a “preemptive” $12 million payment made during court proceedings in an attempt to settle the matter.

These sums are nothing to sniff at, but they represent small change to Messi in a way that only athletes and entertainers of his stature can understand. The little maestro who started his soccer career on the streets of lower-middle-class Rosario, Argentina, now rakes in $20 million every year in salary from Barcelona. Add on some lucrative sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Adidas, and Turkish Airlines, and he takes home about $65 million a year.

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That said, the agreement reached between a Spanish prosecutor and the Messis more than covers the approximately $6 million in taxes they were accused of hiding in foreign tax havens from Spanish authorities. Leo and Jorge might reasonably have assumed that the matter had been put to bed. They were in for a rude awakening, then, when in late July a Spanish judge decided to push ahead with a criminal prosecution despite a recommendation from the public prosecutor that charges be dropped.

The move actually falls right in line with many of Spain’s judicial tax policies in the post-Great Recession period. In 2012, after consecutive years of unemployment rates over 20 percent and a budget deficit over 8 percent of GDP, the Spanish authorities sought to crack down on tax evasion. They stepped up their pursuit of evaders using offshore accounts, creating new, harsher penalties for failure to report foreign assets. Residents of Spain—anyone who spends 183 days or more a year there—are taxed on their worldwide income, much like their counterparts in the United States.

The taxmen targeted up to $10 billion in taxes on undeclared assets in 2012, and by the following year were exceeding that goal, collecting $12.5 billion for an 11 percent increase. To do this, the country’s tax collection agency received a funding boost and adopted some new methods. Some of these, like confiscating money from businesses’ cash registers during business hours, make their pursuit of Messi seem very civil indeed.

Part of the point, of course, is to make an example of a high-profile figure, and show that no one is above the law. The soccer star is hardly the only example. The tax collectors often target public figures and high-profile organizations in Catalonia, the would-be independent region of northeast Spain which has Barcelona as its capital. This year the region’s former president, Jordi Pujol, was investigated for and ultimately admitted to failing to pay tax on an inheritance. FC Barcelona, the club Messi represents, was charged by a Spanish court with committing tax fraud in a shady deal to bring Brazilian star Neymar to the club in the summer of 2013.

All of this contrasts markedly with pre-recession policies, especially what has come to be known as the “Beckham Law.” Passed in 2006 to accommodate the huge salary demands of superstar David Beckham, a signing for Real Madrid, the tax reform allowed foreign soccer players to pay most of their taxes abroad, thereby committing “legal tax evasion,” according to The Guardian. Messi probably could have used the weight of his global brand, as Beckham had, to get similar treatment even after the law was amended in 2010, but he did not. He also elected not to take advantage of a recent tax amnesty whereby he could have paid back just 10 percent of what he owed. He and his father allegedly sought, instead, to hide his identity through a web of shell corporations in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and various South American tax havens.

While FIFA is effectively beyond the jurisdiction of any government (PDF), Messi is still a resident of Spain, and he and his father seem to be in a lot more trouble there than they initially thought. Though the court has only so far decided that Lionel “could have known about and approved of” his father’s tax plans, the Barcelona forward could face real jail time if convicted. More likely, he’ll pay a very hefty fine. The real damage may be to Messi’s otherwise squeaky-clean image as a humble champion from humble beginnings.

If only he had worked for FIFA, he might have a Picasso by now. He certainly wouldn’t have a court date.