Neymar just ran into tax trouble—a problem all too common now for soccer’s global superstars

Referees are watching—on and off the field.
Referees are watching—on and off the field.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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First, Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi was brought to court on tax-fraud charges. Now, his teammate and fellow global soccer star Neymar is having his assets frozen. Luis Suarez, the third member of the attack triumvirate that dominated last season’s top club football competitions, must be on the phone with his accountant by now.

And that doesn’t even include the defensive stalwart Javier Mascherano, who is reportedly under investigation for tax evasion himself.

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, who goes by his first name professionally, saw a Brazilian judge freeze assets worth 189 million Brazilian reals ($48 million) after finding that the player had not declared the full extent of his income and underpaid his taxes between 2011 and 2013 by some 63.3 million reals ($16 million).

While it’s not clear how exactly the misstatement occurred, the assets seized included three companies listed in the names of Neymar and his father. The player and his representatives have yet to comment on the judge’s decision.

The undeclared payments are alleged to have come from Barcelona Football Club; its business dealings have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Its purchase of Neymar’s contract from the Brazilian team Santos allegedly included unpublicized payments to third-party figures and perhaps to Neymar and his family; one Brazilian firm has sued Neymar, his father, and Barcelona Football Team, alleging underpayment.

Messi’s case may help shed some light on how footballers can land in trouble for avoiding taxes. The Argentine player stands accused of tax fraud in Spain for routing significant amounts of income accruing to his “personal brand” through a series of foreign shell companies. While Messi has said that the structure was created by his father, a Spanish court rejected his appeal and he is expected to stand trial.

With money pouring into what is increasingly a global game, clever lawyers and accountants have become emboldened in their quest to find gaps in national jurisdictions that make it easier for their clients to hang onto the earnings that come with international superstardom. But when they get too aggressive, and investigators come asking questions, things can quickly get very problematic. Just ask Sepp Blatter.