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Lionel Messi and father to stand trial in Spain over $4.5 million tax fraud charges

Lionel Messi during a Spanish La Liga soccer match in Vigo, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

Lionel Messi during a Spanish La Liga soccer match in Vigo, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.  (ap)

Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi will face his toughest challenge of his career when he stands trial in Spain on three counts of tax fraud. He could be sentenced to nearly two years in prison if found guilty.

The 28-year-old Barcelona forward and his father Jorge Horacio Messi have been accused of defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4 million euros ($4.5 million) in unpaid taxes from 2007-09.

A judge in the case has rejected a request to clear the four-time world player of the year of wrongdoing and decided to charge him and his father with tax fraud.

Prosecutors had said Messi was not fully aware of his father's unlawful activities, but the state attorney's office contended that the he knew enough to also be named in the case. Prosecutors had called for an 18-month prison sentence for the player's father.

A judge had recently rejected an appeal filed by the player's lawyers to drop the Barcelona star from the case.

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Messi's father made a payment of more than 5 million euros ($5.6 million) in August 2013 to cover unpaid taxes, plus interest.

A date for the trial has not yet been set. It will take place in Vilanova i la Geltru, a town 30 miles south of Barcelona.

The El Pais newspaper reported recently that Messi told authorities he would "sign anything with his eyes closed" if his father told him to do it.

The court in Gava, Barcelona, had said that although Messi was unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe the Barcelona playmaker could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights. Authorities said some of the income came through companies located in tax havens.

The court said it was not necessary for Messi "to have full knowledge of all accounting or corporate transactions or the exact amount of the fraud" for him to have had a clear idea of an intention to defraud.

This news in the latest blow to Messi, who will be out of action for six weeks due to a knee ligament injury. His brother Matias Messi is also facing legal problems after he was arrested in Argentina for having an unlicensed firearm.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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