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Messi mighty leave Spain

It will be no consolation to Lionel Messi as he tots up the hours billed to him by the lawyers working on his €4.1 million tax fraud case, but he is not the first key figure in Barcelona’s history for whom the Spanish state has raised the issue of tax at the most inconvenient moments.

In fact, the average socio making his way down the hill to Camp Nou could get quite paranoid about the fact that Neymar, Javier Mascherano and Adriano have all been dragged into cases that have, like Messi, carried the prospect of serious sanction. No one believes that Barcelona’s No10 will get the 22-month prison sentence that the prosecution say they will push for, but even the man with world football’s most implacable poker face must be given to quiet

moments of worry.The bond that has connected Messi, who is injured, with Barcelona for the past 15 years

In 1953 Barcelona believed they had signed the prolific Argentine striker Alfredo Di Stéfano from his parent club, River Plate. He had even played two friendlies for Barcelona by the time that Real Madrid signed him in spite of a recent government ban on signing foreign players. The reluctance of then Barcelona president, Marti Carreto, to push through the signing is one of the great mysteries of Spanish football history.One theory is that Carreto was told his payment to River Plate had not passed through the Institute of Foreign Currency, and if he failed to withdraw interest in Di Stéfano, Carreto’s textile company would be subject to a potentially catastrophic event for a businessman of the Franco era: a hostile tax inspection.
has seemed unbreakable, and yet what if the picture elsewhere changed? What if Messi felt he could no longer live in Spain? The Premier League’s biggest beasts might see an opportunity, but there would be others who would benefit too.

A compromise was proposed in which Di Stéfano would play alternate seasons for both clubs, at which point Carreto resigned and told the Argentinian he could go to Madrid. He won, of course, five consecutive European Cups. The BBC raised the subject with Di Stéfano in an interview before his death last year and you could see the old footballer’s certainty drain from his face. “Bureaucratic issues,” he muttered.The lines were clearly drawn in the old struggles of the Catalan region against Franco’s Spain but in the modern era, as Catalonia’s surge towards independence becomes ever greater, there are many given to wonder if the pressure is applied by the establishment in more subtle ways.

None of which is intended as a defence of Messi’s tax arrangements whereby his advisers sold his image rights to companies in Uruguay and Belize, who then sold them on to the likes of Adidas and Pepsi, incurring zero offshore corporate tax rates along the way. In a country on a €41 billion EU bail-out, Messi’s fellow twentysomethings who face soaring unemployment levels, would be entitled to point to a monumental selfishness.

The Messi defence is that on his journey from child prodigy to king of the Ballon d’Or, he spent not one single minute reading the contracts he signed, although you can only assume he will take a greater interest from now on.Messi’s lawyers will have noticed a trend with key Catalan figures finding their own tax affairs under scrutiny, including the former regional president Jordi Pujol, the current Catalan regional president Artur Mas and former Barcelona mayor Javier Trias. Perhaps the standard of accountancy in the region is particularly poor, or perhaps someone is taking special interest as the region pushes for independence.

In Messi’s case, the Spanish prosecution service dropped the charges against the player and announced it would pursue just his father, Jorge, for his role, only for the state attorney to reverse that decision a few days later and insist both men stand trial for tax evasion.

It would be mischievous to point out that the official responsible for that decision, Marta Silva de Lapuerta, is the daughter of a former minister of public works under Franco and is herself a former Real Madrid board member.

Of course, amongst Spain’s political classes you do not have to scratch the surface much to find allegiances dating back to the old days but when it is Barcelona’s best player’s peace of mind at stake, and maybe even his liberty, then those connections are harder to dismiss.

In 2004, the Spanish government passed what became known as the “Beckham Law” after Madrid’s famous signing of the previous year, which decreed foreign players brought into Spain paid 24 per cent tax rather than the usual 45-50 per cent. It was scrapped in 2009 when the government could no longer afford it on the proviso that existing tax arrangements were maintained for five years, meaning that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema continued to pay the lower rate.

It was the same for Barcelona players signed between 2003 and 2009, but for Messi – signed in 2000 – and the likes of Radamel Falcao at Atlético Madrid, who arrived in 2011, the 50 per cent rate was applicable. Given that Real Madrid agree net salaries with their players, regardless of tax rate rises, the club might have saved €35 million over the course of Ronaldo’s contract.Madrid have their own problems, with an European Commission investigation into an alleged illegal state aid deal that enabled them to buy the land for the massive proposed redevelopment of the Bernabéu. In the meantime the political temperature in the city has changed with a new socialist mayor much less amenable to president Florentino Pérez’s ambitions, and national.

Over at Barcelona the tension is understandable and last week, they issued a statement supporting Messi and denouncing the “accumulation of totally inadmissible and external decisions that have been going on for some time, and that have nothing to with strictly sporting affairs”.

Back at Casa Messi he may have heard the jokes about him weaving his way past prison officers and out the gates as if he were tricking his way through the Getafe defence. He may yet believe himself simply a victim of bad advice. But if he believes himself to be a victim of something bigger, darker, conspiratorial, then it is Barcelona who know they have the most to lose.ections next month promising more of the same.

Howard’s end and his overlooked genius

Howard Kendall was 38 when he won his first managerial league title as Everton manager in 1985 – younger than Sir Alex Ferguson when he won his first title at Aberdeen (39) or Jose Mourinho at Porto (40).

Pep Guardiola, Andre Villas-Boas and Kenny Dalglish might all have won titles at a younger age but they were in charge of teams who were either pre-eminent in their domestic leagues or one of two vying for the title. Everton finished 15th when Kendall took over in 1981 and they were up against European champions Liverpool and Brian Clough’s greatest Nottingham Forest side.

The news of Kendall’s death evoked memories of a career of what-ifs and could-have-beens, not least that he really should have played for England and potentially even managed the team. Yet he won one league title as a player; two as a manager; reached three FA Cup finals in a row with Everton (winning one) and won a European Cup Winners’ Cup. These days, a record like that would make him football management royalty.

What's the game of his name?

A room at Cobham. Diego Costa, Ramires and Cesc Fabregas talking animatedly when, suddenly, Jose Mourinho walks in. The room immediately falls silent but as the Chelsea manager leaves and closes the door behind him, he is sure he can hear suppressed snorts of laughter the other side of it.

There are lots of things you can be sure Mourinho hates: losing to Arsenal, wingers failing to track back, faulty pre-match PowerPoint presentations, losing to Arsenal. But reports of an unflattering nickname bestowed on him by his players? That kind of humiliation is poison for a

man whose dressing room aura is crucial.

The best subversive managerial nickname of recent years was the “Postman Pat” moniker bestowed on Fabio Capello by his England players. It was based on a physical similarity but also implied a certain unworldliness, making light of Capello’s best efforts to be in charge.

If Mourinho really wants to know what his players think of him, he needs to know if the nickname exists – and what it is.

Sphamandla Ntshokotsha

Sphamandla Ntshokotsha

Staff writter

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