The City Center complex in Rosario, Argentina looks not unlike a bunker. Its low profile and plain concrete exterior is the polar opposite of flashy. Yet it still manages to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, most of them gamblers. City Center is home to South America's largest casino, its mirrored galleries packed with blinking and jingling slot machines into which an army of players shove their coins.
On June 28, 2017, members of an anti-corruption unit paid a visit to the building on suspicions of money laundering. Rosario, located a four-hour drive northwest of Buenos Aires, is considered one of the key hubs for the worldwide drug trade. And where gambling is rife, mafia money isn't far away.
Lionel Messi didn't let such concerns bother him. Two days after the police raid, the five-time FIFA player-of-the-year recipient married his long-time girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo. The entire country was obsessed with the wedding: What dress would Antonella wear? Would the pop icon Shakira, the girlfriend of Messi's teammate Gerard Piqué, sing for the couple? What would be on the menu?
The 30-year-old Messi, of course, is seen as a football god far beyond the borders of Argentina. And his story reads like a fairy tale: A boy who grew up in poverty and suffered from impaired growth, only to be discovered as a 13-year-old and brought to Europe, where he received medical treatment - and where he developed into one of the best football players in the history of the game.
Despite his fame, though, the boy from Rosario has remained approachable - a shy, friendly young man who isn't a big talker. He prefers to spend his free time with his friends and family, or with his PlayStation, leaving the more complex aspects of adult life to his advisers, his father Jorge Horacio first and foremost. Indeed, it was his father who decided in 2000 to have his diminutive son play a trial for FC Barcelona. Following intensive hormone therapy, Messi was able to develop his tremendous talent for the Catalonian club.
Thanks to Messi, the team has enjoyed the most successful era of its history, having won 30 titles thus far during the player's career. Messi himself has scored 365 goals in 400 league matches, more than any other player in the history of Spain's Primera División.
Even though Spain has been his home for almost two decades, Lionel Messi has always emphasized his deep ties to Rosario, the city where he was born and where part of his family still lives. Partly for that reason, no doubt, "La Pulga," or "The Flea," as Messi is sometimes called, returned to his hometown last summer to tie the knot at the City Center with Antonella, with whom he already has two children. Rosario's provincial airport suddenly found itself packed with private jets for the event, with the bride and groom having invited 260 guests, including almost all members of both the Argentinian national team and of FC Barcelona. A tabloid paper calculated that the market value of all the professional players in attendance exceeded 2 billion euros.
June 30 was a day in the public limelight for Lionel Messi. But the events that took place on that same day in Barcelona were strictly confidential.
And they have remained so. Until now.
Messi's new contracts, extending his tenure at FC Barcelona until 2021, were dated to the day of the star player's wedding. The deal was preceded by difficult negotiations. The old contract had been set to expire in summer 2018, at which point Messi would have been available without the need to pay a transfer fee, a horror scenario for every Barça fan.
This deep foreboding felt by FC Barcelona executives - that they would have to explain to angry fans how they ended up without their idol and without a transfer sum - is reflected in the contracts, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained. For the first time ever, a club has guaranteed a player an annual income of more than 100 million euros. By comparison, the annual revenues of a club like the German team Werder Bremen are around 120 million euros in total, from which the club must pay its entire personnel in addition to other operating costs.
Such is the gap between middle-class clubs like Bremen, which found success on the European stage as recently as the 1990s, and the gleaming global brands of today, teams that hungrily snap up the best players in the world. And this chasm is growing deeper and deeper. The turbo capitalism seen in recent years has ratcheted up the earning potential of the world's best players to obscene levels.
Yet the excessive salaries, the industry's greed and the growing disconnect between the lives lived by football stars and those lived by their fans have triggered a Europe-wide discussion: How much longer are fans going to be willing to pay increasing amounts of money for tickets, television subscriptions and jerseys just so their favorite players can earn astronomical salaries? Toni Kroos of Real Madrid earns a fixed salary of 14.5 million euros per year. Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes 22.6 million euros. Neymar rakes in 36.8 million. And Cristiano Ronaldo earns 38.2 million. Are such paydays appropriate?
Lionel Messi's new contracts with FC Barcelona promise to add yet more fuel to the fire. Yet it goes beyond the mere numbers. The history behind Messi's contracts provides a deep look into the business of top-level football, an industry which seems to have completely abandoned concepts such as congruity and probity in the scramble to hire the next global superstar.
It is a story that can be told on the basis of hundreds of internal emails from FC Barcelona in addition to account statements, remittance slips, reports, official documents, legal briefs and a large number of contracts. DER SPIEGEL received the material from the platform Football Leaks and analyzed it with partners from European Investigative Collaborations (EIC).
The documents, many of them marked confidential, shine a spotlight on the questionable business practices the Messi clan engages in. The papers also show how FC Barcelona bent over backwards to avoid losing its hero.
Lionel Messi and his father Jorge have criminal records. With the help of his father, the player evaded 4.1 million euros in taxes by using offshore companies to hide more than 10 million euros in marketing income from the Spanish tax authorities from 2007 to 2009. In summer 2016, they were each ordered to pay a large fine and sentenced to 21 months in prison. Because it was their first offense, the judges did not force them to serve their sentence.
As such, Lionel and Jorge Messi must have been particularly concerned when, even as the trial was still underway, they again ended up in the focus of Spanish tax authorities. During an audit of FC Barcelona, four agents from the Agencia Tributaria, Spain's tax office, stumbled across money transfers worth millions of euros from the club to Messi's father and to the player's nonprofit foundation, called Fundación Leo Messi, which aims to help children in need.
The Football Leaks papers show that the tax agents demanded all club documents relating to payments made to the foundation in the years 2010 to 2013. The officials demanded precise information regarding why, exactly, the club had made the payments, suspecting that they were not, in fact, donations but hidden salary payments to Messi himself.
FC Barcelona seemed unsettled by the tax authority's investigation. Out of "loyalty," as an internal email notes, the club's chief legal representative notified the Messis of the questions to which the authorities had requested answers. But Jorge Messi responded confidently: "Don't worry, we have become quite knowledgeable on these issues."
The team retained a renowned lawyer to compile a risk analysis. His draft report made it clear that the club's position in this dispute with the tax authorities was far from advantageous. As was Lionel Messi's. The lawyer believed there was a "high" probability that the tax authorities would see the millions of euros Barça transferred to Messi's foundation as salary payments and thus as an "offense."
A Significant Problem
The lawyer lists several scenarios for Lionel Messi. One of them says: "The player clears up his tax situation in its entirety before the tax authorities approach him." Messi would likely face a penalty along with the back payment, but a settlement would forestall legal proceedings for tax evasion. This scenario, the lawyer wrote, is the safest one for Messi, "also against the backdrop of the tax evasion trial he is currently facing."
Additional court proceedings wouldn't just have been a significant problem for Messi, but also for FC Barcelona. The team's entire marketing strategy is dependent on the star player, as is the team's on-field strategy.
Finding stories and reporting them together, exchanging information and publishing texts simultaneously: That's the concept behind the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network. Since December 2015, 10 European media outlets have collaborated on investigative projects. In addition to DER SPIEGEL, this network includes: El Mundo (Spain), Falter (Austria), L'Espresso (Italy), Le Soir (Belgium), Mediapart (France), NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands), Newsweek Srbija (Serbia), Politiken (Denmark) and the platform RCIJ/The Black Sea (Romania). The network's first article, about the international trade in illegal weapons, appeared on March 19. For the research into Football Leaks, the network was joined by Expresso (Portugal) and The Sunday Times (UK). About 60 journalists were involved in the evaluation of the data, including editors, data and research experts, graphic designers, lawyers, IT specialists and translators.
When FC Barcelona met with Messi representatives for a first discussion of the Agencia Tributaria investigation into the player's foundation, team president Josep Maria Bartomeu implored the club's chief lawyer in an email: "Please stay at their side, quick, make sure that everything is done properly."
The lawyer who had compiled the risk analysis contacted FC Barcelona lawyers again in late July. He was concerned about the potential consequences that Lionel Messi could face: "Our view is that the risk of the player being summoned has been extremely high for several weeks and is essentially unavoidable once the authorities next visit us, no matter what happens or whether we deliver files to them or not."
In the weeks that followed, several meetings between club management and the player's tax advisers took place, with Messi's father likewise being kept abreast of developments. As President Bartomeu noted in an email, the father was "concerned." The term the two sides used when discussing the tax problems was "el asunto," or "the affair."
Even if Lionel Messi's advisers insisted that the transfers from FC Barcelona to Messi's foundation were in no way part of the player's salary, they reached a deal with the authorities. Lionel Messi paid around 12 million euros. But he already knew at the time that the club would take care of the penalty.
To do so, Barça chose an extremely questionable model.
Pain in the Neck
The draft contract shows that the club intended to loan Lionel Messi 12 million euros, money with which the player was to pay his tax debts. "Even if the sum in question will be formally paid by Señor Messi, it will be absorbed by FC Barcelona in full," the draft noted. In October 2016, Messi and the club reached agreement on the loan, and 12 million euros were wired to the player's Caixabank account.
Messi, for his part, wouldn't have to pay back the loan: He and the club had agreed on a special premium. The bonus they had agreed on, to be paid in the coming season in addition to Messi's salary, was 23.1 million euros. Of that, 9.6 million was to pay back taxes on the consulting fees received by his father with 13 million earmarked for the tax problems relating to his foundation. The net total of the bonus is roughly equal to the sum of the loan: 12 million euros.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2018 (January 13th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
Virtually the entirety of FC Barcelona management was involved in coming up with the solution to Messi's most recent tax difficulties - and nobody was particularly bothered by the fact that the club would be left paying the bill. Except for one: Sabine Paquer, the club's compliance officer.
Paquer spoke up in October 2016. In an internal email, she asked if the contract for Messi's loan had been checked by Barça lawyers and consultants. She returned to the issue again later, asking whether external auditors had been consulted. The compliance officer indicated that she had her doubts about the loan period, the interest rate and additional clauses pertaining to the loan.
It is safe to say that the rest of FC Barcelona's executive team viewed Sabine Paquer as a pain in the neck. That, at least, seems to be the message of the tone used by team directors when discussing her queries among themselves. Ultimately, one of them asked the CFO to please explain to "Sabine" that "the club isn't a listed company" and that "this loan could help convince Leo to extend his contract. And if we don't do it, the whole thing could become more complicated (or impossible)."
Paquer, in short, was brought into line. In an email, the CFO explained to the compliance officer how important the deal was. "We have to keep in mind that this matter has to do with the club's most important asset," he wrote. Thanks to Messi, he continued, it will likely be possible to land additional important sponsors in the future.
Ms. Paquer stood down. But the issue facing the club has by no means been resolved. The audit of FC Barcelona is ongoing.
THE RECORD CONTRACT
In early 2017, shortly after Lionel Messi's wedding in Rosario, Román Gómez Ponti, FC Barcelona's chief legal representative, wrote an email to CEO Óscar Grau. It consisted of a single word, written in the subject line: "ALELUYA" - with the final A repeated 69 times. Grau replied: "Thanks to ALL for your dedication and effort. The extension of Leo Messi ... was important for the survival of FC Barcelona." President Bartomeu wrote to Messi's father Jorge: "Congratulations to everyone! Leo remains where we all want him to be."
To ensure that their superstar would remain tied to FC Barcelona beyond 2018, Bartomeu, his deputy Jordi Mestre and club CEO Grau drafted three core contracts, all of them written in Catalonian. The first was a 14-page employment contract, countersigned on behalf of Lionel Messi by his father; the second a 15-page contract with the company Leo Messi Management S.L., pertaining to the player's image rights, likewise signed by Messi's father; and the third a contract with Messi's foundation in Barcelona.
The amount of money the three contracts oblige FC Barcelona to pay is unprecedented.
If one assumes that Messi will fulfill the contract and remain a key player for Barça for the next four years, and if one-time payments like the signing bonus and loyalty bonus are broken out over the duration of the contracts, then the player is guaranteed to receive 106,347,115 euros per season. If FC Barcelona achieves a "treble" - which entails winning the Champions League, the Spanish league title and the Spanish cup all in a single season - and if Messi is crowned FIFA player-of-the-year that same year, then he stands to earn an annual salary of 122,515,205 euros.
Paying Messi's Tax Debts
The club is making it possible for him to earn almost half-a-billion euros in four years - despite the fact that Messi has already seen his 30th birthday come and go and currently finds himself on the home stretch of his career. How is such a thing possible?
In professional football, bookkeeping is often close to unadulterated magic. In the case of Messi, it is even able to transform tax debt into guaranteed salary earnings.
When FC Barcelona signed its contracts with Messi at the end of June 2017, the two sides agreed to annul the bonus payment of 23.1 million euros. In the previous year, it had been a core element of the effort to make the club responsible for Messi's tax back payments. Now, though, that sum became part of Messi's new fixed salary.
Or, to put things more plainly: The club, which has for years enjoyed millions of euros worth of tax concessions from the Spanish state, has now formalized in this monster contract its willingness to compensate the state for the latest tax debts of its star player, a man who has already been convicted once of tax evasion.
Club executives described the vast scope of the contracts in internal calculations. In one instance, they worked out that expenditures on Messi would account for 40 percent of the team's future payroll. Another document noted: "The player needs to be aware of how disproportionately high his salary is relative to the rest of the team."
Messi's father knew that he could ask for pretty much whatever he wanted for his wunderkind. The global football market has become so overheated in recent years that it would not be difficult to find a Chinese, Russian, Arab or American investor willing to meet the Messi family's demands.
Even Real Madrid, FC Barcelona's greatest rival, seems to have tried to wrest the Catalan team's star away on one occasion. The documents obtained by DER SPIEGEL tell the tale of an offer for Lionel Messi that has thus far remained secret.
NEGOTIATIONS IN THE SKY
On the morning of June 22, 2013, Iñigo Juárez, the lawyer tasked at the time with taking care of affairs relating to Lionel Messi, sent an email to the player's father Jorge. Juárez wrote that he had met with Real Madrid representatives in his capacity as Messi family liaison - and the lawyer added that the team in the Spanish capital was eager to buy the striker out of his contract with FC Barcelona. Messi had only just extended his contract with Barça in February 2013.
The contract stipulated a termination fee of 250 million euros. Real Madrid, Juárez wrote to Messi's father, was prepared to pay that sum as a transfer fee. According to Juárez, Real hoped to sign Lionel Messi through the end of the 2021 season and intended to pay him an average of 23.125 million euros per year for the eight seasons in question - after taxes.
The team also showed generosity when it came to image rights: Messi would be allowed to hold on to all income resulting from the contract he signed prior to the summer of 2013, Juárez wrote, a total of 20 million euros per season, according to his calculations.
"They want to quickly know what the future holds," Juárez wrote, "after all, they are willing to spend all that on your son." Real Madrid apparently proposed that a meeting take place in the coming days. "I told them that you were traveling," Juárez wrote.
But Real Madrid seems to have had an answer to that hurdle as well. And quite an extravagant one at that.
The plan according to Juárez called for chartering two private planes. The first was for the Messis, their lawyer, Real President Florentino Pérez, the team's sports director and a team lawyer. The plan called for negotiations to take place in the air, with the plane then landing at a predetermined location. One plane would take the Real officials back to Madrid while the second would be used by the Messis.
The team executives had brought along two incentives, Juárez wrote. One was for Messi's father: "Your commission is fixed at 5 percent," the lawyer continued, or 16 million euros over eight years, before taxes. The other one, according to Juárez, had to do with the tax evasion investigation into Lionel Messi by public prosecutors in Barcelona, an investigation that had just been made official at the time. "They tell me that they would exert pressure on Rajoy to reach a solution for your son that is as advantageous as possible," Juárez wrote.
Mariano Rajoy had been prime minister of Spain since 2011. Was he under Real Madrid's thumb?
"I don't consider that to be particularly credible," Juárez added. Indeed, while it has repeatedly been claimed that Real Madrid's influence reaches to the highest levels of Spanish politics, written evidence is sparse. When reached for comment, Iñigo Juárez answered that the publication of internal emails is a violation of the law. Real Madrid wrote that the account is "totally false."
The episode with Real Madrid gives an indication as to the possibilities that were open to the Messi family. There seem to be no lines they won't cross, even up until today. If Juárez's account is true, Messi's father even negotiated with a Barça fan's greatest enemy to drive up his son's value.
Ultimately, of course, Lionel Messi remained in Barcelona. In May 2014, the club gave him a significant raise over the raise he had only just received the previous year. According to a draft contract DER SPIEGEL has obtained, Messi's gross guaranteed earnings rose to an average of 29.9 million euros per year.
Either go with the flow or lose out: The market for top players these days doesn't allow for weaknesses. And FC Barcelona executives were well aware in 2016 that if they wanted to have a chance of keeping Messi in Catalonia, their next offer would have to reach unprecedented dimensions. Barça likewise promised Jorge Messi an agent commission equaling 5 percent of his son's gross earnings, or more than 24 million euros in the best-case scenario.
But there was something fishy going on in summer 2017.
After Messi's father and FC Barcelona executives had all signed the contracts last summer, the club wanted to issue a statement that it had reached an agreement to keep "the best player in history" on the team until summer 2021. Messi himself was scheduled to sign his contracts as soon as he had returned from his honeymoon.
Furthermore, FC Barcelona wanted to fix a transfer fee that a club wishing to buy Messi out of his contract would have to pay: 300 million euros. Making such a fee public was "standard," CEO Óscar Grau wrote to Jorge Messi. But the father was opposed to the plan. Naming the 300 million sum "contributes absolutely nothing," he replied. He noted that he was concerned that additional details from the negotiations could be leaked or handed to the media. "It would bother me if numbers leaked out because it would only stoke unrest," Jorge Messi wrote.
FC Barcelona had planned an event on July 18 on the VIP stage at the Camp Nou stadium to announce the contract extension to the global press. Messi, fresh off a PR tour through Japan, was to sign the contract while seated next to the three team executives. In closing, President Bartomeu was to hand him a jersey reading "Leo 2021."
"We are waiting for you to confirm the date," Grau wrote to Jorge Messi on July 14. But he got no response. With time running short, Grau wrote again two days later. "It surprises me that you haven't replied," he wrote. "We would like to hold the event before we depart for the U.S.A." The team was scheduled to fly to New Jersey on July 19 for a tournament.
But Lionel Messi didn't sign.
It is possible that his father Jorge had gotten wind of the approaching excesses on the global football market. The summer in which Messi's contract was extended was like a goldrush. In early August, teammate Neymar transferred to Paris Saint-Germain for the record fee of 222 million euros while FC Barcelona bought Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund for 145 million. Manchester United spent around 160 million on transfer fees, while AC Milan invested almost 200 million in new players. Manchester City forked out 250 million euros for new personnel.
The market had exploded.
That was good news for Jorge Messi. Such inflationary tendencies strengthened his negotiating position and led to higher income. It also allowed him to make additional demands.
Although the contract had been signed on June 30, negotiations were apparently reopened. It was only in the last weekend of November that Messi publicly signed his contract, almost five months after the "ALELUYA" email. And suddenly, club president Bartomeu was allowed to publicly mention the transfer fee, which had more than doubled to 700 million euros, apparently in response to Neymar's transfer to Paris. Jorge Messi wrote DER SPIEGEL that the contract was the result of "negotiations which took into account all relevant circumstances currently affecting the market."
After all the pressure from the tax authorities, the loan bargaining, the bonus pledges, salary negotiations and post-negotiations, one thing can be said with some certainty: When it comes to shaping a contract, Jorge Messi is almost as masterful as his son is on the football pitch.
DER SPIEGEL began its efforts to establish contact with the Messis to discuss the foundation, the audit and the record-breaking contract in early November. They did not reply. Following additional written requests for comment, a PR representative who advises one of the Messis' companies got in touch just before Christmas. He promised to speak to the lawyers, but never ultimately provided an answer.
Only after DER SPIEGEL sent a long list of questions at the beginning of last week to Jorge, Lionel and Rodrigo Messi, the player's brother, did the family respond. Jorge Messi answered for himself and on behalf of Lionel. "Me and my son have duly fulfilled our tax obligations," he wrote, adding that all payments from FC Barcelona have been properly declared by both sides. Rodrigo Messi, who is responsible for the Messi foundation in Barcelona, answered that the charitable entity has never violated the law and "has always replied timely to any request from the Spanish authorities."
The Messis did not supply comment on why Lionel Messi made a 12-million-euro back payment to the Spanish tax authorities and why the club ultimately covered the player's tax debt. FC Barcelona issued a statement saying that all money wired to Messi's foundation was for charitable purposes. "The interpretations that you or other people can make of these donations do not change this position at all." Team executives Bartomeu and Grau likewise declined to comment on why they paid their superstar's back taxes.
It would likely be incorrect to accuse Messi of being responsible for the business conduct of his confidants, for all the tricks used to heap pressure on his employer and for disregarding existing agreements because the market suddenly made it possible to rake in even more money.
The many emails and contracts show that Messi's business matters are taken care of almost exclusively by his father, his brother Rodrigo and a handful of selected lawyers. But doesn't he carry some degree of responsibility for their behavior?
After being convicted of tax evasion, the judges gave Messi another chance, through which he only barely avoided serving time. Yet even long before the verdict, he could have sorted out his business affairs with the help of independent, professional advisers. Instead, though, Messi continues to place his trust primarily in his father - with whom he sat at the defendants' table.
Rafael Buschmann, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Nicola Naber, Gunther Latsch, Jörg Schmitt and Michael Wulzinger