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Messi to take stand at tax fraud trial in Spain
[BARCELONA] Argentina and Barcelona football star Lionel Messi, one of the world's highest-paid athletes, is due to take the stand Thursday for the first time at his tax fraud trial in Spain.
The 28-year-old and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros (S$6.41 million) of Messi's income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007-09.
The striker will take the stand on the third and likely last day of the trial.
After his court appearance in Barcelona, the five-time World Player of the Year will jet off to the United States where Argentina take on Copa America defending champions Chile in their first game of the three-week tournament in California on Monday.
The high-profile case kicked off on Tuesday without Messi, as he was recovering in his hometown of Rosario in Argentina from a lower back injury he suffered during a friendly match against Honduras last week.
Under Spanish law, a defendant is not obliged to attend the full trial if prosecutors seek a jail sentence of less than two years - as is the case here.
The tax fraud trial comes at a time of simmering voter anger over steep government cuts to health and social spending, as the government struggles to bring Spain's public deficit down.
Messi's former tax advisors came out in support of the football star when they took the stand on Wednesday, saying the player never handled his own wealth management.
He "didn't take any decisions and I didn't see anyone consulting him for anything", Angel Juarez, one of the partners at law firm Juarez Veciana which managed Messi's tax affairs at the time, told the court.
Inigo de Loyola, another partner and Mr Juarez's brother, added: "I don't know if any of my correspondence has been included in the case, but they will see that Lionel Messi does not appear in any of it."
The Barcelona forward and his defence team have long argued that Messi's father handled the footballer's finances without reporting to him, and the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.
Both Messi and his father, who has managed his son's affairs since he was a child, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud.
Spanish prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 22-and-a-half months for them if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.
But any such sentence would likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.
Messi and his father made a voluntary payment of 5 million euros - equal to the amount of the alleged unpaid taxes plus interest - in August 2013 after being formally investigated, which is expected to mitigate any sentence if they are found guilty.
Messi's father is also scheduled to take the stand for the first time Thursday and lawyers will make their closing arguments, which could potentially run into Friday.