Messi's Missing Millions: Doubts Cloud Charity Games
Where did the money go from six benefit football matches played by Lionel Messi and friends? The world famous football player says they went to charity. Tax investigators believe they went to the players. Documents have emerged that are fueling those suspicions.
Those wanting to see Lionel Messi play at Chicago's Soldier Field on July 6, 2013 had to pay a steep price for the pleasure. The cheapest ticket cost $55 in advanced sales, with the most expensive going for $2,500. The VIP price did, however, come with the opportunity to get a jersey autographed by the four-time FIFA world player of the year from Argentina as well as one of the footballs he was giving out.
The show, "Battle of the Stars -- Messi and Friends vs. Rest of the World," saw idols like FC Barcelona's Javier Mascherano, Brazilian national team goalkeeper Júlio César and former French national team star Thierry Henry taking to the pitch. Messi himself was in top form, darting and feinting his way around the field -- and scoring three seemingly effortless goals that led his team to a 9:6 victory.
The spectacle thoroughly entertained the crowd of 25,000. The spectators also, no doubt, felt good about doing something good. Organizers had announced that a portion of the proceeds would go to the Leo Messi Foundation and be used for charitable purposes. The causes supported by the foundation included providing aid for Syrian refugee children who had been displaced to Jordan because of the civil war or helping children in Messi's home country, Argentina, who suffer from incurable diseases.
The Chicago match was the last in a series of benefit games that Lionel Messi had staged for his foundation. The previous summer, the cast of football stars had held three major events in Bogotá, Cancún and Miami and in the days prior to the Chicago match, Messi's traveling circus made stops in the Peruvian capital of Lima and in Medellín, Colombia. At each match, crowds were delighted and hymns of praise were sung for the famous benefactors.
Helping the Needy or Lining Pockets?
But Messi and his friends are no longer touring the world in an effort to make it a slightly better and happier place. And the reason has to do with a special unit attached to Spain's Guarda Civil police force. The department is called the Central Operative Unit (UCO) and it focuses on money laundering and organized crime. For over a year, it has been investigating where the millions of dollars that Messi and his foundation have raised with charity events have gone. Was it really given to the needy or did it wind up in the pockets of players, agents and even Messi himself?
The FC Barcelona superstar already has enough legal troubles on his hands. Messi and his father have both stood accused of tax evasion since June 2013 and they could face trial this year. The doubts about Messi's charity games threaten to make his legal situation even more complicated.
Witnesses have already shown investigators several inconsistencies. They've presented money transfer forms showing that over a million dollars generated by Friends of Messi games were wired to a bank account in the Caribbean. And there are documents that raise doubts about whether all the witnesses interrogated by the Guarda Civil were entirely truthful, including Messi.
The central figure in the scandal is sporting events promoter Guillermo Marín of Buenos Aires. A good friend of Messi's father Jorge, the bald-headed entrepreneur with deep-set eyes has been a major figure in the South American sporting business for over 20 years. Not all of his profitable ventures have been particularly serious. Likely the craziest show staged by Marín to date was a December 2013 race between 100-meter sprinting world champion Usain Bolt and a city bus in downtown Buenos Aires. Bolt won.
Marín acquired the marketing rights for the Leo Messi Foundation's six games in 2012 and 2013 in South America and the United States, which he then sold on to various local promoters. In Colombia, for example, he transferred the commercial rights for the two games to Total Conciertos, a company in Bogotá. One witness told UCO investigators that Total Conciertos paid Marín $4 million for the rights to the two games, played in Bogotá and Medellín. The man jokingly referred to the 4 million ("cuatro millones") as four melons ("cuatro melones"). The witness claims that Marín used the money to pay the players, including Messi.
It is undisputed that $1.3 million from the two games in Colombia wound up in an account at First Caribbean International Bank in Curaçao -- Marín confirmed this in his own testimony. The money wiring form includes a handwritten reference to "G.Marín-Messi".
UCO investigators questioned Marín at the beginning of last June. He admitted he has access to the account in Curaçao through a company headquartered in Uruguay. He also claimed that $50,000 for each game and a total of $300,000 flowed to Messi's foundation and that none had been sent to Messi personally. Marín didn't answer the investigators' question about what happened to the rest of the money. He did, however, calculate for them that the six games played by Messi and Friends generated revenues of just under $7.9 million.
Messi himself was questioned as a witness at the end of 2013 by the Guarda Civil in Barcelona. The footballer stated that the proceeds from the six games had been donated to his foundation and to charitable causes. He said he had not received any money. His fellow teammates José Manuel Pinto, Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves of FC Barcelona, all of whom took part in the charity games, also denied receiving payment. They said they had rejected payment owing to their friendship with Messi and that the only expenses for which they were reimbursed were the costs of their flights and hotels.
Is that true though?
Offer Raises Suspicions
SPIEGEL has obtained documents from South America that shed serious doubt on this portrayal of events. They originate from Imagen Deportiva, a company based in Buenos Aires that is owned by Guillermo Marín.
Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who played for Borussia Dortmund at the time, was also identified as a possible member of Messi's team. On March 15, 2013, Imagen Deportiva emailed an inquiry to Lewandowski's manager in German.
Imagen Deportiva, the mail read, is "responsible for organizing the games of Lionel Messi under the slogan 'Messi & Friends.'" Lewandowski was invited to play in a benefit game in Los Angeles, that was later cancelled, and the most recent one in Chicago. To make the offer more attractive to Lewandowski, who also plays for the Polish national team, the email listed a number of other prominent footballers who Imagen Deportiva would be trying to recruit for the US trip, including Sergio Agüero, Didier Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovi, Cesc Fàbregas and Antonio Cassano.
"Our offer package," the email said, "consists primarily of two business-class tickets per player, accommodation in five-star hotels and a sum of money intended as compensation."
A further email, sent by Imagen Deportiva to Lewandowski's manager on May 31, 2013, was more detailed about how high this compensation was to be: $30,000. The total was part of a sample contract written up for the games "Messi & Friends vs The Rest of the World," which was attached to the email. "The payment for the two games will be made by money transfer to an account belonging to the player," the contract notes. "Fifty percent of the payment is to be made on June 10, with the remaining 50 percent coming 10 days prior to the game."
When contacted by SPIEGEL, Lewandowski's manager Maik Barthel confirmed that his client had been approached by Imagen Deportiva with such an offer but that he had rejected it.
The organizers of the Messi benefit games didn't give up easily. Just a few weeks earlier, Lewandowski had taken a significant leap toward becoming a global football star by scoring four goals in a Champions League semi-final match against Real Madrid, and Imagen Deportiva wanted to recruit him badly. The company's files make it clear that Lewandowski's manager was sent another mail on June 10, 2013 asking that the signed contract be sent back as quickly as possible. "Please do me this favor!"
Barthel confirmed that he received this mail as well. In the days preceding the June 10 mail, he recalls, representatives from Imagen Deportiva had repeatedly called him, sometimes using an interpreter, and each time they increased the amount of money they were willing to offer Lewandowski.
First, the offer was raised to $90,000. Then to $110,000. Then to $250,000. Ultimately, Barthel said, he stopped answering the phone when an Argentinian mobile phone number appeared on his screen.
Were Other Stars Offered Money?
The offer made to Lewandowski of a quarter-million dollars for participation in two benefit matches raises questions regarding what the other stars may have been offered. Indeed, UCO is investigating on suspicion of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. Investigators also plan on traveling to Curaçao to find out who is behind the ominous account at First Caribbean International Bank into which $1.3 million flowed after the games staged by Messi's amigos in Colombia.
Marín didn't tell investigators during his last hearing in June. The event manager from Buenos Aires is scheduled to be questioned again as a witness in mid-March.
Is it really possible, though, that Lionel Messi is so cynical that the charity games he allowed to be organized in his name are nothing but a cover for large-scale fraud? After all, he is one of the world's top-earning athletes, with annual income of roughly 40 Million ($44 Million).
Thus far, no suspects have been named in the case. And Messi himself has remained silent. The week before last, SPIEGEL sent several questions pertaining to the Central Operative Unit investigation to Messi's lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, a former magistrate on the Spanish Supreme Court. Bacigalupo only answered last Thursday, just before the magazine was going to print. But he left the questions unanswered. He also didn't provide answers to an email sent last Tuesday, in which SPIEGEL requested a statement from Messi on the financial offers made by Imagen Deportiva to Robert Lewandowski for his participation in the two benefit matches in the US.
When asked by SPIEGEL, Argentinian sports promoter Marín also didn't comment on the UCO investigation or his company's offer to Lewandowski.
The Polish national team player never flew to the United States to the Messi and Friends games. "The approach and the offers seemed strange to me," Lewandowski's manager Barthel says. "We didn't want to participate in such a business model."
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