MADRID (AP) — A Spanish prosecutor filed a fraud complaint Wednesday against Lionel Messi, alleging the Barcelona and Argentina star owes $5.3 million in back taxes.
The complaint names Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi. Both are accused of defrauding millions on income tax returns for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
"We are surprised," Messi said on his Facebook account, "because we have never committed any infringement. We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations, following the advice of our tax consultants who will take care of clarifying this situation."
The complaint, signed by prosecutor Raquel Amado, was submitted for trial at the courthouse in Gava, the upscale Barcelona suburb where the Argentina forward lives.
In it, Amado says from 2006-2009 Messi "obtained significant revenue derived from the transfer to third parties of his image rights, income which should have been taxed."
The complaint says Messi "circumvented his tax obligations" by using shell companies in tax havens such as Belize and Uruguay.
A judge at the courthouse must accept the prosecutor's complaint before charges can be brought against Messi and his father.
Messi had the day off Wednesday after playing for his national team in Quito, where Argentina was held to a 1-1 tie with Ecuador on Tuesday night in a qualifying match for the World Cup.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has said Messi was expected to be in the lineup for an exhibition against Guatemala on Friday.
Barcelona declined to comment on the complaint. The 25-year-old Messi has won four straight FIFA world player of the year awards. He has scored 133 goals for Barcelona over the last two seasons.
Forbes rated Messi as the world's 10th highest-paid athlete. He reportedly earned $41.3 million to June this year, with $20.3 coming from his club salary and $21 million in endorsements.
Sports finance analyst at the University of Navarra, professor Sandalio Gomez, said if found guilty of evading tax on his image rights, Messi could be liable for a fine amounting to 150 percent of the earnings concealed.
Gregor Reiter, a German attorney specializing in sports law, said Messi's difficulties show "how important it is for athletes to have excellent and highly-trained counselors and agents" to handle their financial affairs. Player payments often travel across international borders and complicate tax assessments.
Stefan Szymanski, the Stephen J. Galetti Professor of Sport Management in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan, said tax authorities can create "a demonstration effect — everybody takes notice. Everybody thinks, I'd better pay my taxes."
He noted that different tax rates and regulations across Europe could prompt Messi to consider playing for a club in a more tax-friendly country. "If Spain is going to become as strict as northern European countries, then maybe at that point he decides that he's willing to move," Szymanski said.
Szymanski cited a 2009 study by the London School of Economics and the University of California, Berkeley that found top tax rates influence where soccer players end up.
Messi signed a two-year contract extension with Barcelona in February that keeps him at the club through June 2018 — when he will be 31. He joined Barcelona when he was 13 and made his debut with the first team three years later.
The forward scored 60 goals in all competitions this season, leading Barcelona to the Spanish league title. With Messi struggling to recover from a leg injury, Barcelona was eliminated from the Champions League in the semifinals.
Spain has been cracking down on tax evasion as it tries to repair the country's public finances amid the recession and collapse of its real estate sector.
Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro warned soccer players in April they should make sure they are "comfortable" with their tax affairs.
Associated Press writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.