FC Barcelona superstar and five-time Ballon d'Or winner, Lionel Messi has been handed a 21 month jail sentence for tax fraud, as the criminal proceedings launched against the Argentine footballer today reached their conclusion. The charges relate to Messi's usage of shell corporations in Belize and Uruguay, which helped facilitate an elaborate tax avoidance scheme which defrauded the Spanish state of over €4 million of taxes due on Messi's image rights.
Messi and his father are not expected to serve any jail time as a result of the conviction, as Spanish law dictates that any sentence under 24 months may be suspended. In addition, the Messis may appeal the decision through the Supreme Court if they should wish.
Aside from having to pay another fine to the authorities, this essentially means that Messi has in effect "gotten away with it", as the sentence is unlikely to have any tangible impact on him personally. Of course, there is the financial and reputational loss to consider, but in comparison to serving jail time in the prime of his career?
No doubt, there will be many of you who will consider the sentence to be harsh, and you will empathize with Messi's case as he is a footballer rather than a tax specialist -- but given the circumstances, he has no-one to blame but himself. While it is naive to suggest that Messi should verse himself with the intricacies of Spanish and International tax law, he had a duty to select competent and ethical advisors, of which there are many, and he has a certain duty to know enough to help avoid this very scenario. Furthermore, it is remarkably simple to just report all your income and pay your taxes in a single country, and the only complexity in Messi's instance is derived from his usage of offshore companies.
Consider a high-flying business executive who pleads ignorance on the basis that he is a salesman for instance, and not a tax advisor. Would this also be considered a legitimate defense in the eyes of the same people defending Messi?
Not that it matters, Messi remains a free man.