FC Barcelona Star Lionel Messi Tax Troubles, an Audit and a 100-Million-Euro Contract

Why is FC Barcelona paying superstar striker Lionel Messi over 100 million euros a year? Confidential documents contain evidence of more tax trouble, a questionable loan and the negotiating tricks employed by Messi's father. By SPIEGEL Staff

FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi
Simon Prades / DER SPIEGEL

FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi


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.

INTOXICATION

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.

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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.

THE AFFAIR

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.

Messi's employment contract from June 30, 2017

Messi's employment contract from June 30, 2017

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.

What is the EIC?
  • 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.

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.

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