Members of a European Parliament inquiry has accused Fifa and Uefa officials of being “enablers” of a corrupt system that permits players and agents to avoid paying tax, with Barcelona’s social media campaign after Lionel Messi’s conviction for tax fraud described by one MEP as “immoral”.
Part of the European Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry into money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion (Pana), the hearing has been prompted by some of the accusations detailed by the website Football Leaks, which has alleged that various players and managers have hidden tens of millions of euros in tax havens around the world.
The first hearing took place in Brussels on Tuesday with representatives of both world and European football’s governing body in attendance. They were questioned by a series of MEPs, with a particular focus on Messi’s conviction for evading more than €4m in tax over his image rights by using shell companies in Belize and Uruguay.
Last July, the Argentina forward and his father Jorge were sentenced to 21 months in prison after being found guilty, with Barcelona subsequently launching a social media campaign with the hashtag #WeAreAllLeoMessi.
“Messi was guilty and he was sanctioned,” said Belgium’s Louis Michel. “This campaign is immoral and contradicts the values promoted by Fifa.”
German MEP Jeppe Kofod also questioned Kimberly Morris, who is Fifa’s head of global transfers and compliance. “You are for fair play,” he said. “Shouldn’t you also be for fair taxes?”
“It’s a matter for national legislation,” said Morris in response. “Our competencies are limited. We do what is in our power to investigate the sports aspects.”
The Pana committee chairman, Werner Langer, described the answers as “not completely satisfactory”, with Michel accusing the Fifa official of displaying “a magnificent example of double talk”.
“These people are totally against the values you say you defend,” he said.
The panel also heard from Merijn Rengers, a journalist for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which is one of the publications in the media consortium which published the findings of financial wrongdoing via Football Leaks website. Rengers said the desire to evade tax was “epidemic” in the industry, with some of the biggest clubs, agents and players particularly culpable.
“Everybody is using tax advisors to evade tax,” he said, while also raising concerns over the lack of transparency in third-party ownership. “We believe tax evasion is a clear threat to the social values of football and to the regulatory framework and to the integrity of the broader game. Having said that, it’s up to the regulatory authorities.”
But Gregor Reiter of the European Football Agents Association (Efaa) admitted that sanctions have been hard to implement due to different rules being adopted around the continent.
“The federation sees the legislation for players’ agents solely as a framework that member states must adapt,” he said. “That leads to diverging rules depending on the country, which makes it very difficult to take legal action against bad practices.”
The investigation will submit its final report before the end of this year.