Lionel Messi heckled by crowd as big money tax trial begins

Messi on his way into court this morning
Messi on his way into court this morning

Footballer Lionel Messi and his father are in court to defend themselves against tax fraud charges.

Wearing a dark suit and tie, the Barcelona star sat alongside his father in front of the judge during early proceedings in the third day of the trial.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are facing three counts of tax fraud and could be sentenced to nearly two years in prison if found guilty of defrauding Spain's tax authority of 4.1 million euro (£3.1 million) from 2007-09. They are not likely to face any jail time but could be fined and have to forfeit possible future tax benefits.

Some people showed their support to the Argentina international as he arrived on Thursday, while shouts for Messi to "give the money back" were also heard.

Both Messi and his father deny wrongdoing, and the money owed was already paid back.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.

Because of the trial, the Barcelona player has missed part of Argentina's preparations for the Copa America, which starts on Friday in the United States.

The trial is centred on alleged unlawful activities of Messi's father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case.

Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

On Wednesday, Messi's lawyers tried to show the court that the Barcelona forward was not familiar with the tax issues that led to the fraud charges. Witnesses called to give evidence said Messi had little knowledge of the alleged corporate structures that authorities say were created to lower the player's tax burden in Spain.

Messi is the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain's tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso have also been targeted by authorities recently.