Lionel Messi's appeal against being tried for tax fraud was rejected on Friday after a judge found that the Barcelona player should have been aware of how his father, Jorge, was managing his financial affairs, meaning a criminal case may now proceed against the pair.
Lionel and Jorge both appeared in court in the Catalan town of Gava in September 2013, in a case taken as Spain's tax authorities maintain that "image rights" payments made to the player have been channelled through offshore tax havens, leading to the evasion of 4.1 million euros in taxes between 2007 and 2009.
At that hearing 12 months ago, the Argentina captain said that he did not look after the details of his own finances, leaving such matters to his father. Messi senior reportedly told the court that he would take responsibility for any wrongdoing, and that the family had been misled by unscrupulous financial advisors and were now happy to make right any wrongs they had accidentally committed.
Since news of the issue broke over the summer of 2013, the Messis have reportedly paid 5 million euros to the authorities, to cover money owed from the 2007 to 2009 period, plus interest. They are also believed to have paid 10 million euros in taxes due on such income for the years 2010 and 2011.
It was hoped this would lead to criminal charges being dropped, and the public prosecutor's office had reportedly supported Messi's appeal believing this version of events. However according to news agency EFE, the judge has now ruled that it is a "subjective opinion" that Messi "was on the periphery of the financial, contractual and tax management of his income" even if his father had primary control over those matters.
If found guilty, both Messis could be fined up to 21 million euros and receive a one-year suspended prison sentence. The two men have five days to appeal Friday's ruling.
La Liga clubs and players have long used "image rights" to avoid paying higher income tax rates, while the Spanish authorities have regularly found this approach to be illegal, with current Barcelona coach Luis Enrique among those who have previously made a settlement.
The Spanish government has recently been cracking down particularly hard on tax evasion amid the country's continuing economic woes, with Messi one of a number of high-profile targets against whom cases have been opened.
The judge has also reportedly rejected a request for other witnesses, including Barcelona's director of marketing and commercial activities, Raul Sanllehi, to be called to help explain how Messi was not involved in any wrongdoing.