How can Lionel Messi avoid his 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud?


For a brief moment just after lunch on Tuesday the internet went crazy when news circulated that Barcelona star Lionel Messi and his father, Jorge, had been sentenced to 21 months in jail after being found guilty of tax fraud in a Spanish court.

But before the bookies could even change their odds on Barca's hopes next season, the bush telegraph of the internet clarified one pretty significant point - Messi was unlikely to spend a single day inside a cell.

That just led to one more pretty big question... how has he avoided jail? Here, we explain why.

Messi is a first-time offender

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, foreground, and his father Jorge Horacio Messi sit in court in Barcelona
(Alberto Estevez/AP/PA)

Spanish law dictates that first-time offenders can be spared from jail if their sentence is less than two years. This doesn't work for every crime - especially violent crimes - and Messi will now spend the 21 months under a period of probation. Messi and his father have been spared a criminal record too, but have paid substantial fines.

So what were their fines?

Barcelona's Lionel Messi
(Martin Meissner/AP/PA)

Reports have suggested that the Barcelona playmaker has been ordered to pay a £1.7 million fine after he was found guilty of three counts of tax fraud. His father was given a £1.3 million fine, although both men can appeal against these sentences at the supreme court.

How much did the Messis owe?

Lionel Messi
(Manu Fernandez/AP/PA)

They were found to have avoided tax relating to the Barcelona midfielder's image rights, which amounted to more than £3 million. A "corrective" payment had already been paid by the Messis long before before today's sentencing.

What was Lionel's role in the case?

Lionel Messi
(Julio Cortez/AP/PA)

The 29-year-old has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Last month he told the court that he was unaware of the tax arrangements that his father, who runs his finances, had put in place. He also admitted he had signed numerous documents without looking at them. The Messis had been accused of defrauding the state purse of more than £3 million from 2007 to 2009. They were accused of using tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes.

What did the judge say when handing down his judgment

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, and his father Jorge Horacio Messi
(Alberto Estevez/AP/PA)

A statement from the Court of Barcelona detailed the judge's verdict, which read: "(His) avoidable ignorance, which was derived from indifference, is not an error, and it does not remove responsibility." The judge added that Lionel and his father's behaviour "could not go unpunished".

State attorney Mario Maza was pretty damning, likening Messi to a "mafia boss" and saying that his claims that he did not understand his tax obligations were hard to stomach because "even children" knew taxes had to be paid.

What was Barca's reaction?

Lionel Messi's shorts
(Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport)

The club issued a statement backing their player, and saying they would support any appeal. "FC Barcelona gives all its support to Leo Messi and his father with relation to the sentence for tax evasion handed out by the Provincial Court in Barcelona today. 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. FC Barcelona continues to be at the disposal of Leo Messi and his family to support him in whatever action he decides to take in defence of his honesty and his legal interests."

This isn't the first time a Barca player has been in this situation

Javier Mascherano
(Manu Fernandez/AP/PA)

Messi's team-mates Javier Mascherano and Neymar have both been implicated in tax cases already this year. There has been a clampdown on tax avoidance in Spain, especially relating to image rights. Earlier this year Mascherano was also spared jail after he was sentenced to a year behind bars.

Mascherano paid back a reported £1.15 million he was found to owe as well as a £625,000 fine. In March, Neymar was ordered to pay back £36 million in taxes by a court in his native Brazil, while Barca agreed to pay a £4.4 million fine to Spanish authorities to settle a tax fraud case over his transfer to the Catalan club.