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Lionel Messi questioned in Spanish court for tax evasion

Argentina striker Lionel Messi has appeared at a Spanish court to answer tax fraud allegations. He and his father have been accused of defrauding the Spanish state of more than four million euros.

The 26-year-old Barcelona player appeared at a court in Gava near Barcelona on Friday to answer to allegations accusing him and his father of owing the Spanish state 4.1 million euros ($5.5 million) in back taxes from 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Both deny the allegations and have blamed a former agent of the player.

Messi arrived by car shortly before 11:00 am local time (0900 UTC) and walked up to the entrance of the courthouse where fans had gathered to see the football star, though shouts of "cheat" and "thief" could also be heard. His father Jorge Messi arrived separately.

Messi was questioned for approximately a half hour before he and his father were taken away from the court. During the proceedings, the star striker and his father "proved the absence of intent to defraud and their great willingness to set the matter straight with the tax authorities," Messi's lawyer, Cristobal Martell, said afterwards.

Image rights income

The prosecutor's office for tax crimes in Catalonia accuses Messi of hiding income from his image rights in a complex series of companies based in Uruguay, Belize, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

From 2006 to 2009, Messi "obtained significant revenue derived from the transfer to third parties of his image rights, income which should have been taxed," state prosecutor Raquel Amado alleged, adding that the player "circumvented his tax obligations."

Friday's hearing was to determine if there were clear signs that Messi and his father had broken the law. The judge must now decide whether to dismiss the case or impose a fine.

Jorge Messi paid the tax authorities five million euros in August, which is likely to significantly reduce any sentence, should the pair be found guilty.

As a four-time world footballer of the year, Messi is widely considered the best player on the planet and the allegations have not seemed to throw off his game.

He has scored 10 goals in just seven matches this season as the Spanish champions remain undefeated.

hc,dr/pfd (AFP, dpa)

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