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Lionel Messi faces 22-month sentence on tax fraud charges

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BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 02: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and his father Jorge Horacio Messi seen inside the court during the third day of the trial on June 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. Lionel Messi and his father Jorge Messi, who manages his financial affairs, are accused of defrauding the Spanish Tax Agency of 4.1 million Euros ($4.6 million, £3.2 million) by using companies based in tax havens such as Belize and Uruguay to conceal earnings from image rights during years 2007 to 2009. (Photo by Alberto Estevez - Pool/Getty Images)

Soccer superstar Lionel Messi, regarded by many as one of the most talented players in the history of the game, is due in court with his father to answer tax fraud charges Thursday.

Prosecutors allege the pair sought to hide the Barcelona forward’s earnings in offshore accounts, amounting to the defrauding of the Spanish government to the tune of €4.1 million ($4.6 million). They could face a jail term of up to 22 months if found guilty.

The trial opened Tuesday, but injuries prevented the Argentina star from appearing. He and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi — who manages his financial affairs — are only obliged to appear Thursday in order to testify.

Prosecutors filed charges in 2013. Messi has denied any wrongdoing, and in August of that year he and his father paid $6.75 million in back taxes plus interest.

Unpaid taxes on endorsements

The complaint centers on alleged tax fraud between 2007 and 2009. Prosecutors contend Messi and his father, aiming to lower their Spanish tax bill, sought to manage the player’s lucrative income from image rights through shell companies set up overseas.

In June 2014, a Spanish state prosecutor asked the judge to drop the tax fraud charges against Messi but not his father. Later that year, a judge ruled that the case against both would proceed, despite the state prosecutor’s request.

Messi, 26, has an annual salary from his club, FC Barcelona, of more than $20 million, plus endorsements from sponsors including Adidas and PepsiCo.

According to Forbes, he earned an estimated $73.8 million in 2015.

“We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations, following the advice of our tax consultants, who will take care of clarifying this situation,” Messi posted on his Facebook page when the charges were initially filed.

‘Panama Papers’ link

Messi was implicated in the so-called “Panama Papers” offshore leak in April 2016, according to reports.

FC Barcelona has promised to give Messi legal and financial support, as the Argentina international considers whether to sue over the leak.

Messi, who arrived at Barcelona as a 13-year old in 2000 and gained Spanish citizenship in 2005, has won eight Spanish Primera Liga titles and three Champions League crowns during his time at the club. He is Barcelona’s and the league’s, all-time leading scorer.

Meanwhile, his national team Argentina will back down from a threat to fly the team home from the U.S., where it is due to compete in the centenary Copa America. The country’s FA is embroiled in a scandal involving broadcasting rights payments.

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