BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona has drawn widespread criticism for its campaign to support Lionel Messi after a court found the Argentine forward and his father guilty of tax fraud.
Barcelona launched its social media campaign following last week’s court verdict that found Messi and his father guilty of defrauding the Spanish state of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million). Neither man is expected to go to jail despite being sentenced to 21 months in prison because courts in Spain often suspend sentences under two years for first-time offenders.
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The slogan “We Are All Leo Messi” is a play on the public awareness campaign by Spain’s tax authorities “We Are All The Tax Office.” That is meant to encourage people to pay their due in a country still struggling to recover from an economic recession that has left unemployment at more than 20 percent.
“The campaign invites all of Barcelona’s fans to show the best player in the world their unconditional support,” Barcelona said. “We want to transmit to Leo that he isn’t alone.”
The club also posted a video of several dozen of its employees gathered together with hands raised in a show of support for Messi.
Widely panned in Spanish newspapers and online, Barcelona’s campaign has earned a rebuke from Spain’s government.
“I am not Leo Messi. I haven’t committed a fiscal crime,” acting Justice Minister Rafael Catala said Thursday.
The president of Spain’s Higher Sports Council, the country’s leading sports authority, has also blasted the league champions for their rally call.
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“If the campaign intends to make a complaint of some type against the judicial ruling, then it is completely incorrect,” council president Miguel Cardenal said. “We have to respect and honor the (court’s) decision. You can’t have campaigns of this type in order to disagree with a court ruling.”
A worker’s union that represents Spanish tax inspectors has asked Barcelona to end the campaign, calling it “irresponsible.”
“The best thing for the club and the player would have been to accept the ruling and move on,” said Carlos Cruzado, the president of the union Gestha. “But this campaign . is destroying the educational work that must be carried out to make citizens conscientious (of their fiscal responsibilities.)”
Messi and his father deny any wrongdoing and have said they will appeal the verdict to a higher court in Madrid.
While his club has launched its campaign to back him, photos of Messi spending his vacation on a yacht have appeared this week in Spanish newspapers. Those photos of Messi soaking up the sun in a bathing suit have spawned several jokes on social media about how he must be “suffering.”
The spokesman for Barcelona’s board of directors, Josep Vives, has defended both Messi and the club’s campaign.
“In similar cases, we haven’t seen attacks like those Leo Messi is receiving,” Vives said. “It’s obvious that we can’t tolerate this derision of our player.
“We have found ourselves in a controversy because it appears that FC Barcelona is defending tax fraud. What we are defending is a person that is being treated unjustly.”
Besides his club, the Spanish league’s president has also said he believes Messi is innocent.
“I hope that the Supreme Court revokes the ruling because Messi is not a delinquent and shouldn’t be found guilty,” league president Javier Tebas said. “I have interpreted the campaign as meaning that Messi shouldn’t worry, and so he knows that his club is with him.”
Messi is not the only player to have gotten into trouble over taxes.
Also this year, Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherno was handed a suspended one-year sentence for tax fraud; teammate Adriano is being investigated for allegedly not paying all he owes; and former Real Madrid player Xabi Alonso has been accused of tax fraud. Alonso and Adriano deny any wrongdoing.
In June, Barcelona paid a fine of 5.5 million euros ($6.21 million) to settle a case brought against the club by Spain’s tax authorities regarding the signing of Brazil striker Neymar. In that agreement, the club acknowledged it had made “an error in the fiscal planning of the player’s transfer.”