Tarnished Twenty- The FindLaw Sports Law Blog

Panama Papers Scandal Reaches FIFA, Messi

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the release of 11 million documents detailing some shady financial dealings of the world's shadiest characters involved a few members of the world's shadiest sports organization. The Panama Papers data dump, highlighting the pervasive use of offshore accounts and tax havens to skirt tax laws, appears to have implicated both FIFA's new president and its ethics lawyer.

A little more surprising, to those who hadn't been following his tax evasion case, is that the world's best and least shady player, Lionel Messi, was also caught up in the scandal. It's the latest controversy in a sport not so much rocked by financial scandals as it has been defined by them.

Bad FIFA

Soccer's world governing body is coming off a year in which everyone's suspicions regarding its endemic corruption were confirmed. The arrests, indictments, and, finally, the removal of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president promised to begin an overhaul of FIFA's image. Yeah, that didn't last long.

FIFA's new president, Gianni Infantino, elected to that office a scant six weeks ago, is already facing his first corruption crisis after the Panama Papers leak linked him to a series of suspicious TV rights deals during his time at UEFA. The scheme, if there is one, is a little complex: Infantino was legal counsel for UEFA when it sold television broadcasting rights to a company owned and run by Hugo Jinkis, who, with his son, is currently under house arrest in Argentina for allegedly handing over "millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to football executives to obtain and retain media and marketing rights."

Jinkis's company then resold the rights enormous markups. Infantino's role in the sales isn't perfectly clear, but this is the same kind of deal that led to the sweeping indictments last year. Indictments which, along with the Panama Papers, implicate business associates of Juan Pedro Damiani, a lawyer and member of FIFA's ethics committee whose firm "worked for seven offshore companies linked to accused money launderer, and former FIFA vice president, Eugenio Figueredo," and is also linked to the Jinkises.

Bad Messi?

The leak also appears to show that Messi and his father used a Panamanian company, Mega Star Enterprises, to avoid paying taxes on the player's image rights deals. Messi is not the only soccer player implicated in the Panama Papers, nor is this Messi's only tax evasion allegation. (Hell, he's not even the only Barcelona player wrapped up in a tax fraud scheme.) But as the sport's best player on its best team, admired as much for the integrity of his play as for his skill, he could become the sport's most visible face of the Panama Papers scandal.

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