Earlier this month, international soccer superstar Lionel Messi was convicted of tax evasion by a Spanish court for shielding royalties and other licensing income from tax. Although he has been sentenced to 21 months in prison, the Argentine footballer is unlikely to spend any time behind bars and will continue to score dozens of goals for F.C. Barcelona — one of the world’s premier sports teams.
Despite a ruling that found Messi guilty of utilizing tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to conceal earnings from image rights, Barcelona has taken an ardently pro-Messi stance, backing their superstar at every turn. “The club, in agreement with the government prosecution service, considers that the player, who has corrected his position with the Spanish tax office, is in no way criminally responsible with regards to the facts underlined in this case,” team executives stated.
The media have widely criticized the Catalonian club for openly defending a convicted tax evader. After the verdict was announced, the team’s social media launched the #WeAreAllLeoMessi campaign, where fans could submit photos showing support for their star player.
But of course, government bureaucrats were none too pleased, calling the campaign “irresponsible.”
“We understand that campaigns of solidarity, as has been rolled out this week by Barcelona, claiming solidarity with someone who has committed tax fraud, do not exactly improve the fiscal conscience of the Spanish people,” Carlos Cruzado of the Spanish Tax Authority said.
With a verdict already delivered and an appeal on the way, the world’s top player continues to assert his innocence. In official testimony, the Argentine claimed that he knew nothing about the illegality of his finances and that he was told by advisers that his dealings were all legitimate. As punishment, he has been fined €1.7m for three counts of tax fraud, on top of the corrective payments he made before the trial even began.
Spain’s personal income tax rates are among the top-25 highest in the world; that number rises to top-6 when only global economic powers are included. Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region in Spain where Barcelona is located, has rates even higher than that. The highest personal income tax rate for Catalans is currently 49 percent; at least three points higher than anywhere else in Spain.
While Madrid, La Rioja, Murcia, and Valencia have reduced personal income rates, Catalonia has done the opposite, leaving individuals like Lionel Messi to give one out of every two euros earned after €60,000 to the government.
That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.
However, this is not purely about greed; Messi, by all accounts, is a pretty charitable guy. On top of his work for UNICEF (to which he donated half a million dollars in 2015), the current Ballon d’Or winner has his own namesake foundation, which supports access to health care, education, and sport for children. The Leo Messi Foundation has awarded research grants, financed medical training, and invested in the development of medical centers and projects in Argentina, Spain, and elsewhere in the world.
Now for a moment, let us pretend that the Barcelona forward is lying. Hypothetically, let’s say that he did avoid taxes, he did so knowingly, and he did so to profit more from his own image. Given Spain’s confiscatory tax structure, can you blame him?
I am a big fan of Lionel Messi; I happen to think he is the greatest to ever play the game. What would make me an even bigger fan would be discovering that he is purposefully going Atlas Shrugged on the Spanish tax system.