Lionel Messi has been sentenced to a jail term for 21 months, along with his father, for defrauding the Spanish exchequer a sum of around €4.1m over a three-year period between 2007 and 2009. What’s new, you ask? A top-level professional athlete convicted of cheating the system. Quite expectedly, the all-too-flogged routine, comprising denial, disagreement, ignorance from Messi and his entourage, took shape before the State arrived at this verdict.
“21 months of sentence and millions of dollars in fines for using tax havens to conceal earnings” sounds like some serious trouble, a victory to the system, so to speak, except, it hardly is. Spain’s justice system allows convicts to serve out terms less than 24 months under probation, meaning Messi and his father will not have to go to jail, should they agree to pay the fine imposed by the system.
Millions of dollars? Messi makes a €100 million in roughly 33 days, and surely, he can afford to forsake a month’s income, at most, to pay off this “fine”?
Of course, Messi is not the only FC Barcelona player who has had to go through such run-ins with the State, and his profile and consequentially, involvement with the Panama Papers, have resulted in this judgment getting the widespread publicity it has. In the past year, Javier Mascherano and Neymar, Messi’s team-mates at the Catalan club, have both been charged with tax frauds, and the club have offered unconditional moral and financial support to the trio for the best part of these trials.
Mascherano’s case ended with a long-winding PR release, claiming innocence and blaming it all on a reputed Spanish tax advisory firm, whose services he had hired. Messi, for his part, has admitted to signing documents his father produced, with a simple “I didn’t know anything. I only worried about playing football”.
“Did you ever ask your father if you had to pay tax?”
“No, I never asked.”
All right then, quite convenient. The tax firm failed us, our fathers failed us, and in general, we are exponents of a craft that has nothing to do with tax payment. While tax systems are complicated, especially for immigrants from one nation employed in another, in a different continent, it is hard to disagree with the Government prosecutor’s comment to Messi and his father, that “even 10-year-old children know” taxes must be paid.
There are a number of ways to defend Messi and his team-mates as soft targets, that this is proof of a widespread rot in the system, how justice systems allow athletes to get away by just paying a few days’ worth of their earnings, of how “too big to fail” extends beyond just organisations, to such multi-millionaire personalities.
While we can close yet another episode with a plea to superstars to embrace all aspects of stardom with equal sangfroid, including heavy tax payments as dictated by law, we know how that story goes. None of this is likely to make anyone think twice in the future, leave alone bring about sweeping changes across the board.
Sport is not supposed to be real life, nor does it need to sit well together with real life’s troubles and vagaries. Yet, to not follow real life’s laws that apply to every citizen, just because of otherworldly sporting talents, is taking it a bit too far. The only solution, a mirage in the distance at that, is to impose time-based penalties from playing the game, for nothing else hurts an athlete like a premature expiry date on the limited validity product that is his or her body.
Till now, such penalties have been restricted to crimes on the field itself, and if this pile of dominoes continues to fall as it threatens to, maybe it is time to consider an expansion. Let’s face it though, such a day is as far removed from reality as Messi’s footballing talents are.