BARCELONA, Spain — The president of the Spanish football league said he’s worried Lionel Messi could leave to play in another country after being found guilty of tax fraud.
Javier Tebas also defended Messi’s innocence on Friday, two days after a court ruled the Barcelona forward and his father defrauded the state of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) of unpaid taxes from revenues generated from image rights.
"Of course I fear that (Messi) could leave," Tebas said at an event in the Catalan capital. "But the only thing I can tell him is that from La Liga we believe he isn’t guilty and that he should stay in Spanish football. I don’t think Leo Messi is a delinquent."
On Wednesday, a court sentenced Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, to 21 months in prison. The court also fined Messi 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros.
In Spain, sentences of less than two years for first offences are usually suspended, meaning neither man will likely go to jail.
Messi and his father, who have denied any wrongdoing, have appealed the verdict to a higher court in Madrid.
Barcelona quickly expressed its support of Messi following the ruling, saying it believed he and his father were innocent.
A record five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player, Messi is facing the most difficult moment in his glorious career.
He announced last month he would no longer play for Argentina following its loss in the Copa America final. That was his third lost Copa America final to go with a defeat in the final of the 2014 World Cup.
Messi moved to Spain at age 13 to join Barcelona’s youth program. He’s gone on to score a club record 453 goals, and win four Champions League titles and eight Spanish league titles, among other trophies.
He has repeatedly said he won’t play for another European club, preferring to spend his best years at Barcelona before finishing his career back in Argentina.