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  • Michael Mann

I'm Not Messi-ing Around


Sports fans love when new stars join their teams. Sometimes it’s a promising rookie called up to the majors, like Elly de la Cruz lighting a fire under the moribund Cincinnati Reds. Sometimes it’s a mid-career trade, like Justin Verlander taking the Houston Astros to the World Series. And sometimes it’s a grizzled veteran pining for one last shot at glory, like Tom Brady leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to one final Super Bowl win. (Can Aaron Rodgers do the same for the lowly Jets? Stay tuned!)


Rarely, though, does a single move have the potential to upend a league and change an entire sport. Jorge Mas, owner of Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami club, hopes signing Argentinian forward Lionel Messi can score that goal. The Miami deal should raise the 36-year-old Messi’s career earnings to over $1.6 billion, which, yeah, obviously. But Mas also convinced Messi that playing here—as opposed to accepting offers in Barcelona or Saudi Arabia—gives him a legacy-defining chance to score an even bigger goal. Can his brand of magic finally make elevate American soccer to the same level as football, baseball, basketball, and hockey?


Messi is off to a great start, winning his first game with a last-second free kick goal. But it turns out that while he loves scoring, he doesn’t love paying his taxes.


In 2013, Spanish authorities accused Messi of using companies in Belize, Uruguay, and Switzerland to evade €4.1 million in tax on endorsement earnings. Messi, an Argentinean who at that time played professionally for Barcelona, said he wasn't involved in the details. (Like a player faking injury for a ref, he said, "I just played football," and claimed he signed whatever documents his father dropped in front of him.) Nevertheless, he made a €5.3 million "corrective payment" equal to the tax plus interest to settle the charges.


But prosecutors insisted on penalty kicks, and in 2016, a court found Messi and his father guilty on three counts of fraud. (Clearly not Messi-ing around, right?) The court imposed a 21-month prison sentence (which was automatically suspended under Spanish law) and fined the pair another €3.1 million.


Not to be outdone, Messi's arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward who played professionally for Real Madrid, announced later that he would pay Spain €18.7 million to settle tax charges centered on his endorsements. That meant fans who debated over who's the better player could start bickering over who's the better tax evader.


Players haven’t been the only footballers to get yellow-carded for tax offenses. In 2011, IRS investigators used tax charges to "flip" Chuck Blazer, a member of soccer's international governing body, into wearing a wire to help indict 14 other officials on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. Blazer, a 450-pound Lincoln Navigator of a man, lived large on his share of those bribes, keeping two apartments at New York’s pricey Trump Tower: an $18,000/month three-bedroom for himself and a $6,000/month one-bedroom next door for his cats. (Must have been quite the cats, right?!?)


IRS Criminal Investigation head Richard Weber couldn't resist some obvious puns after the eventual arrests, announcing "This is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card," he said. But really, the jokes just write themselves. How about "Corrupt soccer officials couldn't keep hands off the cash"? Maybe "Prosecutors score GOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLL against corruption"?


Soccer is having a moment here in the States. The Messi deal can’t help but bring more enthusiasm and excitement to the sport. The fans at the IRS will love taking a run at the inevitable millions in endorsements and merchandise. Just remember as you sit down to watch that we’re here to help you score your particular financial goals, too!

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