“Fathers must not be put to death for what their children do, nor children for what their fathers do; each must be put to death for his own sin.”
– ‘Deuteronomy’ 24:16, The Bible’s Old Testament
It is a common refrain in the law enforcement business. At some point, you need to make an example out of somebody. From time to time, a powerful deterrent needs to be created. Somebody needs to be hung out to dry, in order to restore popular faith in the rule of law. In 2014, the Spanish tax authorities decided it was going to be their rich and famous footballers.
The Spanish economy had been reeling under the global recession that began in 2008. Unemployment numbers were through the roof. The ghost towns and an abandoned airport had become a ready metaphor for the Spanish story of doom and gloom; BBC’s motoring programme Top Gear chose the deserted streets as the dramatic backdrop for its 2013 supercar race. The government needed revenue. Somebody had to pay. Nothing pleases the public more than watching the rich being held accountable.
Footballers were getting paid in millions, their incomes and lifestyles splashed across newspaper pages alongside unemployment statistics and stories of the scale and intensity of the recession. The taxman went after footballers with intent. He reinterpreted a rule that allowed footballers to pay lower tax on income from image rights; the players could receive the income through shell companies, which were under a much lower tax slab.
The latter half of 2014 saw a number of prominent footballers coming under tax scrutiny. Most players settled their tax defaults by paying hefty fines. There were a number of players from Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. What caught the greatest attention, however, was players from Barcelona, Lionel Messi, most prominently. This fed into the routine bitterness between Catalonia and Castilia regions of Spain, with the Catalonians alleging that their stars were being singled out, even as the capital Real Madrid’s players were being let off lightly. Messi threatened to leave Spain. His conviction for tax fraud on 6 July, 2016, is a result of the Spanish taxman’s desire to make an example of someone, someone big and rich and popular, whose image would carry the message far and wide. The have succeeded.
Up until now, Messi has cut an understated figure of a reluctant superstar in the global spotlight; a gentleman cadet, a god-fearing man who after each goal expresses his gratitude to his dead grandmother by raising both his arms towards the heavens, his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Now, that image counts for less. When his lawyers and business representatives negotiate the rates for his image with marketing executives, the tax conviction and his 21-month suspended jail term will be brought up to lower the payment. In the comment sections of websites across the World Wide Web, fan wars will be fuelled. As it is, Twitter is abuzz. “It was the father,” Messi’s supporters are insistent, pointing out to the testimony Messi gave, that he just signed on the dotted line when his father gave him the papers.
It is, so often, the father. Sports is the most obvious arena of father-child bonding. Most of us remember our first visit to a stadium, accompanied by our fathers. Hours upon hours of sports consumption on the TV becomes bearable due to the conversation with daddy. We learn to form opinions and present our views from those conversations. The regular visits to the training ground at awkward hours, the negotiations with the coaches, the counselling sessions. The figure of the father is central to sports, exceptions notwithstanding. For female athletes, it becomes overbearing at times. Remember Monica Seles and Steffi Graf? Or, more recently, the Williams sisters?
Messi’s first coach was his father. (His great rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s father was the kit man of the first team the son played for.) In Messi’s early years after relocating to Barcelona from Rosario in Argentina, his father was the only family he had in a foreign environment. His father negotiated all deals for him. That didn’t change after Messi arrived.
It seems safe to assume that Messi’s statement in court – that he signed where his father asked him to sign – is true. But the courts and taxman are not appointed to sit and listen with empathy. They function on the rule of law, not on sweet stories that fuel the media and marketing world. We’ll never know for sure if their pursuit of the Messi case was driven by Spanish politics or merely because Messi’s representatives bungled during the course of the investigation. Or just a concatenation of non-footballing events.
We’ll never know with any certainty why other footballers got away cheaply, settling quietly, and why Messi didn’t – or couldn’t. What we know is what we see: a hero of our time in possibly the worst hour of his adult life. The man who recently lost his fourth international final and announced his retirement from the national team due to heartbreak. The image around us is not of the exhilarating Messi runs on the pitch with the football under close control, the markers left off-balance by jink after shoulder-dropping jink. It is of a tragic figure who has lost control, standing alone in the shadows, head hanging, hands on hips. Messi always showed a lot of humility. Now he has humiliation to go with it.
In the form of the classical tragedy, the fall of the protagonist is incomplete without him confronting his hamartia, the fatal flaw. In Messi’s case, the hamartia is in the form of a shadow cast over him. His father’s shadow. If the Spanish taxman wanted to set an example, they have succeeded. Spanish tax laws are the subject of discussion across the world today. Footballers and sportsmen will now be more careful – at least for a while – when signing papers their fathers and lawyers put in front of them.
Messi, the footballer, will reemerge as the football season gets underway next month. He might win his appeal in the higher courts. He might return to play for Argentina and even lift a trophy or four. But the tax conviction will now be part and parcel of the story. A scar that no plastic surgeon from the world of image consultancy can remove.