Messi scandal lifts lid on football’s dirty secret

The recent tax authority investigation of Barcelona's Lionel Messi has put the spotlight on Spanish football's fiscal affairs and raised questions over the ability of many clubs, including first division heavyweights, to pay their debts.

Messi scandal lifts lid on football's dirty secret
Spanish tax authorities are cracking down on both clubs and players. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

News that the Spanish tax authorities intend to pursue World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi on charges of avoiding more than €4 million ($5.2 million) in tax on income from his image rights has captured world attention.

The Spanish taxman's focus on the previously squeaky-clean Argentine superstar is in keeping with a more robust approach to the world of football when it comes to paying their dues to society in a time of economic crisis.

On the surface, the health of Spanish football looks rosy. The national team are world and European champions and all 11 players chosen in FIFA's 2012 team of the year played in La Liga.

But beneath that healthy exterior is a mountain of debt that clubs below the big two are struggling to cope with.

At the end of the 2011/12 season the total debt of Spanish clubs stood at an incredible €3.3 billion, much of it owed to the tax authorities.

Latest figures released in March showed that although the debt to the state had fallen by 8.2 percent in the past year, there was still some €690.4 million outstanding — €535.8 million of which belonged to teams in the Primera Division.

The authorities claim the reduction in the debt is thanks to their firm stance, with repayment plans in place with a number of clubs.

The Spanish Professional Football League has also begun to take serious measures to curb the culture of debt among its members.

Clubs will have to lodge their budgets with the league for the upcoming season along with their operating costs and the amount they are due to repay tax authorities over the season.

The league will then set a limit the club is allowed to spend on its first-team squad and management team.

On top of that, from the 2014/15 season clubs will have to lodge 35 percent of their income from television rights with the league, and it will then be used as security against them failing to pay the tax authorities on time.

The long-term goal of these measures is to clear the clubs' tax debts by 2020.

The regulations will also coincide with UEFA's newly implemented Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules which threaten clubs that fail to balance their books with expulsion from European competition.

However, there has been scepticism as to whether bigger clubs who fail to meet such obligations will be punished as harshly as smaller fry.

Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and someone who has written extensively about the economics of European football, points out that tax authorities often struggle with clamping down on big clubs with huge fan bases and significant power to influence governments.

"Tax authorities the world over will go after a well-known player or football club once in a while, as it is a very strong way of sending a message that everyone is liable for tax."

"The problem comes when big football clubs are too big to fail. Governments don't want big clubs to go bust so try to tell tax authorities to lay off a bit."

That is a particularly relevant point in Spain where football forms a significant part of the culture.

Moreover, there is the intangible aspect of what Spanish football, particularly the national team, has offered as a morale boost within the country and as a positive image of Spain abroad at a time where the news agenda has otherwise been dominated by financial doom.

However, the economic crisis has already began to take its toll.

Falling attendances, reduced sponsorship, a television deal heavily weighted in favour of the big two clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and a need to service debts mean other clubs can no longer afford to hold onto their better players, while their ability to compete in European competition is also greatly diminished.

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Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.