Lionel Messi's tax fraud trial begins without him in court

MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi's tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain's tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina's preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

"Everything is good. Everybody is calm," said Messi's lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

Planet Futbol
The key issues, arguments in Lionel Messi's tax fraud case

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi's father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case.

Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain's tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

Mascherano, Messi's teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.

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