Barcelona - Barcelona star Lionel Messi on Friday moved closer to facing trial over alleged tax fraud after a Spanish court rejected his appeal against being named in the case and ordered the probe to go ahead.
The Argentine forward and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, were accused last year of not paying €4.16 million in tax on earnings from the player's image rights from 2007-2009 through the creation of a web of shell companies in Belize and Uruguay.
Both Messi and his father, who is also the player's manager, denied wrongdoing and pointed the finger instead at a former agent of the player when they were quizzed at a court in Gava, the Barcelona suburb where the player lives, in September 2013.
Based on the Messis' testimony, public prosecutors called for the case to be shelved.
But the court in July ruled that there was "sufficient evidence" to believe Messi "could have known and consented" to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights and ordered the prosecution of the case to go ahead.
Messi's lawyers appealed but on Friday the court said it had "dismissed entirely" their petition and upheld its earlier ruling. "In this type of crime, it is not necessary for someone to have complete knowledge of all the accounting and business operations nor the exact quantity, rather it is sufficient to be aware of the designs to commit fraud and consent to them," the court said in its ruling.
Messi and his father have five days to appeal the court's ruling.
If the court rejects that appeal, prosecutors will have to formally ask the court to send him to trial - a move which Messi's legal team can again appeal.
If the court agrees there is enough evidence to send the player to trial, it will then set a date. Messi can appeal this decision as well.
The player's father made a payment of five million euros in August 2013 to cover alleged unpaid taxes, plus interests. That was thought likely to significantly reduce any sentence should they be found guilty.
Messi, 27, won the Ballon d'Or title four times between 2009 and 2012, but lost his crown last year to Real Madrid's Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is the fourth richest sportsperson in the world, according to a ranking published in June by Forbes business magazine.
The player moved up to fourth from 10th place in just a year with an annual income of just under $65 million, it said.
Between 2007 and 2009 he earned more than 10.17 million euros in image rights, including contracts with Adidas, Danone, Pepsi-Cola, Procter and Gamble, and the Kuwait Food Company.
Spain has been cracking down on tax evasion as it fights to repair the country's public finances after the collapse of a decade-long property bubble in 2008 tipped the economy into a deep double-dip recession.