Lionel Messi appears in Spanish court over tax fraud

Lionel Messi is accused of millions of euros of tax fraud

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Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi has appeared before a Spanish judge as part of a tax fraud investigation.

The 26-year-old Argentine, four times Fifa World Player of the Year, and his father Jorge Messi are accused of defrauding the authorities of more than 4m euros ($5.4m; £3.4m).

The two men were questioned separately at the court in Gava, near Barcelona.

Both father and son deny the allegations. The Messis' lawyer said he wanted to resolve the matter.

The footballer and his father are suspected of using companies abroad - in Belize and Uruguay - to sell the rights to use Lionel Messi's image, thereby circumventing tax obligations in Spain. The allegations date back to 2007-9.

The income related to Mr Messi's image rights included contracts with Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, and the Kuwait Food Company.

'Tougher line'

After Friday's hearing, which was a closed-court session, the state prosecutor's spokesman told the BBC that no agreement had been reached with the two men and their lawyers.

The spokesman said that the defence's strategy had been to pin blame on Jorge Messi, insisting on the innocence of the star striker.

In August, Jorge Messi made a payment of 5m euros to the tax authorities - the 4.16m euros of the alleged unpaid tax plus interest.

The BBC's Tom Burridge in Madrid says that Spanish tax authorities are taking a much tougher line on tax infringements due to the country's economic crisis, which is why they are continuing to pursue the case despite this payment.

Lionel Messi has previously stated that he and and his father "have never committed any infringement. We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations".

Jorge Messi arrives at courthouse (27 September 2013) Lionel Messi's father Jorge (centre) and his son were questioned separately
'Humble'

Mr Messi's net salary from Barcelona is said to be about 16m euros a year, making him one of the world's most highly paid sportspeople.

He has also signed multi-million-dollar endorsements with commercial sponsors around the world.

Mr Messi's achievements on the field have made him one of the most marketable in the business.

He came from a modest background and has overcome a serious health issue, joining Barcelona as a 13-year-old in 2000 and making his first-team debut only three years later.

But the allegations are a big blow to the prestige of the player, who has long been seen as a more humble figure than most top-class footballers.

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