Lionel Messi handed PRISON sentence for tax fraud

The Argentina and Barcelona star was sentenced to 21 months in jail when he appeared in court this morning, according to Spanish media.

The £256,000-a-week star was also fined £1.7 million – six seeks’ wages – by a court in Barcelona.

Superstar Messi, considered the world’s best player, was tried alongside his father Jorge after defrauding Spain’s tax authority of 4.1m euros (£3.19m) from 2007-09.

During the trial, prosecutors said tax havens in Belize and Uruguay were used to conceal huge earnings from his lucrative image rights.

Messi said he “knew nothing” about his financial affairs because he was busy “playing football”, but a judge disagreed and found both men complicit in the crime.

Government prosecutor Mario Maza told the court the pair could not prove their innocence and were not able to show that the player did not have at least some knowledge of the corporate structures created to lower his tax burden in Spain.

He that in particular the player “knew more than he made it appear in court”, adding that both men had “showed no credibility”.

But despite being handed the prison sentence it is unlikely either of them will serve any time behind bars, because the punishment is set to be suspended.

A jail term of under two years in duration usually results in a period of probation under Spanish law, meaning the fleet-footed attacker will only spend time inside if he commits another crime during the next two years.

The news immediately sparked a flurry of memes on social media predicting the reaction of Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo – a long-time rival of Messi for the tag of world’s greatest player.

And sports journalist Tancredi Palmeri sardonically noticed that Messi’s sentence marked “another thing in common” between him and Argentina great Maradonna, to whom he is so often compared.

BBC presenter Gary Lineker said the judgement would mean “tax frauds the world over will be looking to move to Spain”, whilst former England cricketer Michael Vaughan quipped about Messi’s quick feet, tweeting: “Messi is so good he can even avoid prison.”

And singer Lily Allen said she felt the star had been treated too lightly, writing: “Apparently Messi will not go to jail as sentence is under 24 months. So that makes sense.

Messi recently retired from international duty with Argentina after missing a penalty in the Copa America final, saying he was fated to never have success with the national team.