Few players in the history of football have amassed a trophy haul to match the medal-laden exploits of mercurial Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi -- but Wednesday’s conviction for tax fraud tarnishes his aura.
Five Ballons d’Or, four Champions League titles and three Club World Cups have prompted many in the game to see the 29-year-old megastar from Rosario as the best player ever -- even if at international level the cupboard is bare save for a 2008 Olympic title.
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri last week described the goal machine as “God’s gift” to the country and urged shocked fans to “take care of him” as they digested his vow to quit the national side after a missed penalty denied his countrymen Copa America glory last month.
While fans of the ‘albiceleste’ were digesting the end of an era, Spanish authorities were honing in on Lionel Andres Messi for an entirely different reason -- tax fraud.
And they duly tackled their man as a court sentenced the star and his father to 21 months in jail for tax fraud and slapped them with a fine of 3.7 million euros ($4.1 million).
Neither will serve time as Spanish first and non-violent offences bringing jail terms under two years see sentences suspended.
The term will instead be converted into a hefty fine of a joint 3.7 million euros -- 2.09 million euros for Messi and a further 1.6 million for his father.
The player insisted his father managed his finances and he “knew nothing” of how his wealth was managed.
But the state attorney representing tax authorities in the trial, Mario Maza, said he found that claim unlikely.
The pair can appeal the convictions on three counts of tax fraud to Spain’s Supreme Court.
The affair puts a dent in the reputation of Messi, whose dazzling skills have wowed fans worldwide since he made his Barca debut as a 17-year-old in October 2004.
He had joined the Catalan giants as a 13-year-old, relocating from his homeland in central Argentina to undergo treatment in Catalonia for a growth hormone deficiency.
Messi’s phenomenal goalscoring record and gravity-defying skills have helped secure eight La Liga crowns with Barca as well as four Spanish Cups and six Spanish Super Cups.
In 2012, although Barca were denied Champions League glory after a semi-final loss to Chelsea, that season saw him set a welter of personal landmarks.
At just 24, he became Barcelona’s all-time top goalscorer, breaking Cesar Rodriguez’s 232 goal mark which had stood for 57 years.
He netted a Liga record 50 goals on the way to a European all-time record season tally of 73, breaking Gerd Mueller’s 67 goals scored in the 1972-73 German season.
Last year he bagged his fourth Champions League winner’s medal after a triumph over Juventus in Berlin, a consolation at club level after the heartache of losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany.
Those who do not make Messi the world’s greatest ever player point largely to the absence of World Cup glory as the reason to rank him behind Pele and compatriot Maradona.
This season’s Copa final loss also hurt and precipitated his decision to quit the national team.
Messi, a married father-of-two, will find the means to pay his fine easily enough.
He is the world’s highest paid footballer with an annual income of 74 million euros ($84.3 million, £59.3 million), according to a report earlier this year in France Football magazine, keeping him ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (67.4 million euros).
Messi team-mates Neymar and Javier Mascherano have also been fined in recent months by Brazilian and Spanish courts for evading tax -- not the kind of treble Barca stars are used to targeting at the Nou Camp.