Soccer Star Leo Messi Receives 21-Month Jail Sentence

But the Barcelona forward is unlikely to end up behind bars

Leo Messi tax fraud
Jose L. Argueta/ISI/REX/Shutterstock

MADRID — Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s best known soccer star, was sentenced to 21 months in prison by a Barcelona court for three counts of tax fraud.

Whether Messi — with Cristiano Ronaldo the biggest TV ratings driver in Spain — will serve any time in prison is another matter.

Messi was accused along with his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, of recourse to tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to conceal €10.1 million (USD 11.1) in earnings over 2007 to 2009 for use of Messi’s image rights.

Messi has been ordered to pay a fine of about €2 million, his father €1.5 million. Under Spanish law, however, sentences of less than two years which are also first offences are usually served by probation rather than by time in prison.

Reacting to the sentence, and lending at least a touch of suspense to the case, Spanish newspaper El Pais pointed out, however, there have been exceptions to this rule, such as Spanish singer Isabel Pantoja, sentenced to two years in jail, who did end up behind bars.

Messi is also free to appeal his sentence. It comes at a volatile time for both Messi and his soccer club Barcelona. Hundreds of fans demonstrated under pouring rain this week in Buenos Aires at Messi’s decision to retire from international soccer. Barcelona, as Real Madrid, are among four Spanish soccer clubs ordered by E.U. antitrust authorities to pay taxes at the same rate as companies having benefitted for years from preferential tax treatment in Spain given their status as non-profit organisations.

A five-time winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or, an annual award for the world’s best player, Messi is also one of Spain’s most dramatic TV growth drivers.

Fourteen of the top 20 most-watched transmissions in Spain last year were soccer games. That result comes in a recuperating TV ad market. Meanwhile, in last December a first-time-ever rights package-style auction to LaLiga and Copa del Rey matches in Spain over seasons 2016-17 to 2018-19 raised €2.95 billion ($3.3 billion) after Telefonica, Mediapro and Vodafone bought separate batches of matches.

Similar to a system used in the U.K. and France, December’s block-auction of soccer games raised $1.08 billion per season, 64% up on the 2015-16 season.

Few TV rights in Spain have seen such a dramatic revaluation.

Messi’s conviction will most probably merely add more human drama to the new season’s kick-off this September. The big question in Spain, as it would be in other countries, will most likely not be if his jail sentence will affect the public purse – persuading more people to pay taxes – but whether it will affect his game.