Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi has been given a 21-month jail sentence for tax evasion – but is unlikely to go to prison.
Messi and his father, Jorge, received the same sentence but under Spanish law a jail sentence under two years for a first-time non-violent crime can be served on probation, meaning they are unlikely to be imprisoned.
A Barcelona court found both men guilty of three counts of tax fraud. The sentence can be appealed through the Spanish supreme court, a statement said.
The court ordered Messi to pay a fine of around £1.7m and his father to pay £1.27m.
The case concluded on June 3, when prosecutors contended that Messi’s father was the main person responsible for defrauding Spain’s tax authority of £3.19m from 2007-09.
However, the legal representative for the tax office said the Barcelona forward knew enough to also be held accountable.
The pair were accused of using tax havens in Uruguay and Belize to hide more than £3m in earnings from image rights from the Spanish tax authorities.
The footballer told his trial he knew nothing of how his money was managed and admitted signing documents without reading them.
He told the court last month: “The truth is no, the truth is no, I didn’t know.”As my dad explained earlier I just dedicated myself to playing football, I put my trust in my father, in the lawyers who had decided to manage this thing.”
Messi’s lawyers said he never examined a series of contracts between 2007 and 2009 which dealt with the income from image rights with companies including Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Danone, Procter and Gamble, Banco Sabadell and the Kuwait Food Company.
He made a voluntary payment of £3.8m in August 2013 to cover unpaid tax and interest.
The presiding judge, Mercedes Armas Galve, wrote in her sentencing statement: “[His] avoidable ignorance, which was derived from indifference, is not an error, and it does not remove responsibility.
“The information that the accused avoided having was, in reality, within his reach via trustworthy and accessible sources.”
Messi – who has been voted World Player of the Year five times – announced his international retirement in the run-up to the verdict.
Barcelona released a statement in which they gave their unequivocal support for the player.
“FC Barcelona gives all its support to Leo Messi and his father with relation to the sentence for tax evasion handed out by the Provincial Court in Barcelona today,” it read.
“The club, in agreement with the Government prosecution service, considers that the player, who has corrected his position with the Spanish Tax Office, is in no way criminally responsible with regards to the facts underlined in this case.
“FC Barcelona continues to be at the disposal of Leo Messi and his family to support him in whatever action he decides to take in defence of his honesty and his legal interests.”