On Wednesday, a Spanish court sentenced the Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi to 21 months in prison after he was found guilty of tax fraud for using offshore companies to avoid paying Spanish taxes on advertising contracts. But under Spanish law, he is unlikely to serve any time.
The court Wednesday found Mr. Messi and his father, Jorge Messi, guilty of using shell companies in Belize, Uruguay, the U.K. and Switzerland to avoid paying $4.63 million in taxes on endorsement income the player earned between 2007 and 2009.
During the four-day trial on June, Messi and his father denied any wrongdoing. Both said the player was unaware of the tax issues that led to the fraud charges. But the court agreed with the state prosecutor that Messi and his father did have at least some knowledge of the corporate structures created to lower his tax burden in Spain.
During court testimony, Lionel Messi said he had just followed the directions of his family and financial advisers. “All I knew was that we signed agreements with certain sponsors, for X amount of money and that I had to do advertisements, photos and those things,” he testified. “But about the money and where it went I knew nothing.” Asked if he had suspected a scheme to avoid tax in Spain, he responded: “No, because I know nothing about that matter. I was honestly never interested in that.”
The sentencing came shortly after Mr. Messi announced his retirement from international soccer, after missing a penalty in Argentina’s loss to Chile in the final of the Copa América. He will continue to play for his club. Even he has lost four major finals with his national team, he has one of the greatest club records in soccer history.
This year, Barcelona won both the Spanish Liga, and the King’s Cup, but failed to defend its title in the Champions League. Mr. Messi, 29, left Argentina as a teenager to join the club’s youth training academy.