Jun 27, 2017 Last Updated 3:47 PM, Jun 26, 2017
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Why Are Spanish Football Stars In Legal Trouble?

All three players: (L-R) Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi All three players: (L-R) Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi Image sourced at gettyimages.com
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Spain has attracted arguably the three brightest lights of world football, with Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Neymar all plying their skills in La Liga.

Over the past year, football fans have become used to seeing the trio caught up in accusations of tax fraud and other financial crimes by the Spanish courts.

And they are not the only players in the crosshairs of the Spanish judiciary. In 2016, Lionel Messi's Argentina and Barcelona team-mate, Javier Mascherano, received a one-year suspended prison sentence for tax fraud.

Three players, three trials

Lionel Messi and father Jorge were last year convicted of defrauding the Spanish state of €4.1m (£3.6m; $4.6m) in unpaid taxes on the striker's image rights, controlled by offshore companies in Belize and Uruguay.

The pair were both handed 21-month jail terms in a ruling recently confirmed by Spain's supreme court.

Now the original Barcelona trial court must decide whether the sentences should be suspended in accordance with Spanish custom for first-time offenders whose prison terms do not exceed two years.

Prosecutors have asked for a two-year sentence and a €10m fine for Neymar, who was cleared of fraud but ordered to stand trial over alleged corruption in his 2013 move from Brazilian club Santos to Barcelona.

Now Ronaldo has become the third and final member of the elite La Liga trio to face criminal accusations, after prosecutors announced they were pursuing the 32-year-old former Manchester United man on four counts of tax fraud.

A source close to Ronaldo told the BBC  that "he's very sad and really upset" about the allegations. "He doesn't want to stay in Spain. At this moment, he wants to leave," the source said.

Soon after David Beckham joined Real Madrid in 2003, he was able to enjoy a new tax-exemption scheme aimed at attracting foreign talent to Spain across all sectors. That scheme became known as the Beckham Law, when he became one of the first players to sign up to a six-year-long tax ceiling of 24%, roughly half what Spaniards paid on six-figure-plus incomes.

Spain was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom, a perfect playground for "galacticos" of the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, before the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and the emergence of Barcelona prodigy Lionel Messi.

But in 2010 the Beckham Law was scrapped for salaries of more than €600,000, and since then tax inspectors have begun to wise up to the use of complex financial operations using offshore shell companies to get around tax laws.

"The line between avoidance and evasion is very fine in these cases. In the past few years Spain's tax agency has intensified its control over footballers and their companies, checking to see if they are mere fronts or whether they are really active economically," explains Carlos Cruzado, president of tax inspectors' union Gestha.

Case against big three

Neymar is the odd one out. His case involves alleged wrongdoing towards a contractual party regarding his transfer fee, but the forward has been found guilty in his native Brazil for tax fraud on money earned while playing for Santos.

Prosecutors accuse the Real Madrid star of evading tax of €14.7m between 2011 and 2014 via an alleged shell company called Tollin Associates, registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Spanish investigators say the company, owned by Ronaldo, is a "screen" and has no economic activity apart from having bought and then ceded the player's image rights to a firm based in Ireland that "genuinely manages [his] rights sales".

Prosecutors also claim that money earned from image rights was incorrectly described as capital gains, to benefit from a lower tax rate.

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