Barcelona star Lionel Messi due in court to answer tax charges

BARCELONA, Spain -- Barcelona and Argentina forward Lionel Messi will take the stand on Thursday to face questions over his tax affairs.

Authorities are preparing a special operation to control the many journalists, fans and onlookers expected to be at the Barcelona court when the star arrives. He did not have to be in the courtroom on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first two days of the trial.

Messi's have lawyers tried to show that he was not familiar with the tax issues that led to fraud charges against him.

Witnesses called to testify on the second day of his trial said that Messi had little knowledge of the corporate structures that authorities say were created to lower the player's tax burden in Spain. They said that although he signed documents, it was his father who was actually responsible for the player's businesses off the field.

Messi's lawyer had previously said the strategy is "counter-attack" in the Barcelona and Argentina forward's trial.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud. They could be sentenced to nearly two years in prison if found guilty of defrauding Spain's tax authority of €4.1 million ($4.5m) from 2007-09.

It is unlikely they will face any jail time, although they could be fined and have to forfeit any possible tax benefits in the near future.

Because of the trial, the Barcelona player has missed part of Argentina's preparations for the Copa America Centenario, which starts on Friday in the United States. He is only expected to join his teammates in the U.S. after the trial ends, with their tournament opener against tournament holders Chile on June 7 in Santa Clara.

However, it has been he is a doubt for the Chile game due to a rib injury he picked up in a friendly against Honduras. Argentina's second game is against Panama on Friday, June 10.

The defence's case is centred on Messi's alleged lack of knowledge of his father's transactions involving contracts and tax issues.

"The player wasn't involved in any of the decisions," Angel Juarez, a partner at the law office that represented Messi at the time, testified. "He would show up only to sign the documents."

The person responsible for handling the player's tax declarations was also brought to the witness stand and said only Messi's father would review the document before it was submitted.

"Leo didn't see them," Eva Blazquez, who said she prepared the declaration with information obtained from Messi's father, said. "The final supervision was done by the client, in this case, Jorge Messi."

An expert called up by the defence said some of the signatures on Messi's contracts appeared to be falsified, adding to the thesis that the player didn't closely take part in off-the-field dealings.

Spanish prosecutors said that even though Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was enough evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the fictitious structure created to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

Juarez said that Messi's father was aware that his son wouldn't have to pay taxes if his image rights went through a company based in Uruguay, but claimed that such a practice was legal.

The trial is expected to finish on Friday, and the verdict and sentencing should come next week.