Barcelona - Argentina and Barcelona
football star Lionel Messi, one of the world's highest-paid athletes, is due to
take the stand on Thursday for the first time at his tax fraud trial in Spain.
The 28-year-old and his father, Jorge
Horacio Messi, are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and
Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on $4.6 million of Messi's income earned through
the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.
The striker will take the stand on the
third and likely last day of the trial.
After his court appearance in Barcelona,
the five-time World Player of the Year will jet off to the United States where
Argentina take on Copa America defending champions Chile in their first game of
the three-week tournament in California on Monday.
The high-profile case kicked off on Tuesday
without Messi, as he was recovering in his hometown of Rosario in Argentina
from a lower back injury he suffered during a friendly match against Honduras last
Under Spanish law, a defendant is not
obliged to attend the full trial if prosecutors seek a jail sentence of less
than two years - as is the case here.
The tax fraud trial comes at a time of
simmering voter anger over steep government cuts to health and social spending,
as the government struggles to bring Spain's public deficit down.
Messi's former tax advisors came out in
support of the football star when they took the stand on Wednesday, saying the
player never handled his own wealth management.
He "didn't take any decisions and I
didn't see anyone consulting him for anything", Angel Juarez, one of the
partners at law firm Juarez Veciana which managed Messi's tax affairs at the
time, told the court.
Inigo de Loyola, another partner and Juarez's
brother, added: "I don't know if any of my correspondence has been
included in the case, but they will see that Lionel Messi does not appear in
any of it."
The Barcelona forward and his defence team
have long argued that Messi's father handled the footballer's finances without
reporting to him, and the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.
Both Messi and his father, who has managed
his son's affairs since he was a child, have been charged with three counts of
Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail
sentence of 22-and-a-half months for them if they are found guilty, plus fines
equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.
But any such sentence would likely be
suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less
than two years.
Messi and his father made a voluntary
payment of $5.6 million - equal to the amount of the alleged unpaid taxes plus
interest - in August 2013 after being formally investigated, which is expected
to mitigate any sentence if they are found guilty.
Messi's father is also scheduled to take
the stand for the first time on Thursday and lawyers will make their closing
arguments, which could potentially run into Friday.