BARCELONA superstar Lionel Messi is on course to stand trial in Spain over allegations that he avoided paying €4.2m (£3m) in tax on a string of lucrative endorsements.
Messi, 27, and his father Jorge are accused of using companies registered in Belize and Uruguay to circumvent tax on image rights earnings between 2006 and 2009. The offence can carry a prison sentence.
The pair deny wrongdoing, and Messi’s lawyers argued that the player – rated among the world’s highest-earning sportspeople – should not be held responsible because he delegated his contractual affairs.
But a Barcelona court yesterday rejected the Argentinian’s latest appeal, saying that he stood to benefit from the arrangement and decreeing that a hearing should determine to what extent he was aware of it.
The income relates to a series of endorsements with high-profile brands, including Pepsi-Cola, Adidas, Danone, Procter and Gamble, Banco Sabadell and the Kuwait Food Company.
Messi and his father made a voluntary payment of €5m (£3.6m), designed to be equivalent to the missed tax plus interest, in August 2013. It has been suggested that this may reduce any possible punishment, further reducing the slim chance of a custodial sentence.
The four-time World Player of the Year helped Barcelona to complete a treble on Saturday by beating Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final. The Catalan club had already won the Spanish top-flight title and the Copa del Rey.
Messi earned $73.8m (£47.6m) last year, according to Forbes magazine, placing him fourth in their annual ranking of top-earning athletes.
Boxers Floyd Mayweather ($300m/£193.3m) and Manny Pacquiao ($160mm/£103.1m) topped the list owing to their superfight last month in Las Vegas, with Messi’s Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo third ($79.6m/£51.3m).
Tennis star Roger Federer ($67m/£43.2m) and basketball’s LeBron James ($64.8m/£41.7m) and Kevin Durant ($54.1m/£34.9m) are next in the rich-list.