Pitchside Europe

Messi may have fallen into a common football trap


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Lionel Messi (Reuters)

Lionel Messi (Reuters)

In an anonymous wood panelled office overlooking a park in one of Barcelona's most desirable areas a mile from Camp Nou, a team of professionals work on behalf of Lionel Messi. There is no evidence of Messi in this old lawyers' office, no framed shirts on the wall or match balls. In stark contrast to the office of Messi's team mate Daniel Alves, where his six staff work in a room adorned with jerseys from games gone by. Alves has a desk too and is proud to talk about shirts swapped and old encounters. Why a footballer needs an office with staff is debatable, but these mini-brands are businesses in their own right.

David Beckham proved that, but as far back as 1982, Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson was confiding to his best mate Gordon McQueen that he was struggling to keep up with all the commercial offers.

"Bryan was a real modest lad, I don't even think he realised how good he was," says McQueen. "I used to pick him up every day for a year when he had a driving ban in 1983. He was starting to get bigger and bigger and he would confide in me and tell me about the commercial offers he was getting. He was becoming a major figurehead in football, a Bobby Charlton type figure. He couldn't believe what was happening, but he never changed one little bit."

Messi definitely needs help. Help in negotiating contracts, in sifting through the myriad of commercial offers, in keeping away the sharks that attach themselves to footballers. And he gets it. At least one representative from the office will be there at every interview he does, vetting questions and safeguarding their client. The office stays in daily touch with Barça, so both sides know what's happening. Messi may be contractually obliged to do a photo shoot with one of Barça's sponsors – or he may be contractually obliged to do one with one of his own sponsors.

The office don't want their names anywhere. They run the rule over interviews, demanding and usually getting copy approval. Anything even semi-controversial is taken out. Ideally, they let his feet do the talking.

This is the Beckham principle, where their client has no strong opinions on anything and so people can paint whatever image they want onto the blank canvas of how they think their star should be. Messi isn't Socrates, a man who believed his greatest triumphs came not on the football field but in a fight for democracy. He isn't Roy Keane, who would rather be a butler for Alf Inge Haaland than employ a PR adviser. Nor is he, Samuel Eto'o, who will curse and let rip, talk about breasts and betrayal if he doesn't have anyone telling him to watch what he says.

This is Messi, where the football does the talking and brightens up the lives of millions. If he could do no interviews then he wouldn't. He avoided speaking to journalists from Barcelona's official club media for eight months in 2011-12. Pep Guardiola had discouraged players doing one-on-one interviews, and Lionel was happy to oblige.

When it comes to media, Messi is the Kate Moss of football. Moss is a stunner who, if she opens her mouth, underwhelms. It's the same with Messi and he's fine with that. He's paid to play football, Moss is paid to model. They excel at what they do. Should they be criticised for saying nothing? Does Professor Stephen Hawking get criticised because he's not good at football?

Other players have little time for the media. Paul Scholes would happily never do another interview – a shame because he's acerbic, dry and witty when he does speak. That didn't come across in his turgid 2011 autobiography, a colour by numbers effort marketed at those who like plenty of pictures and vapid, scanty text.

Messi lets others sort his off the field affairs out and, for a while, the advice he sought couldn't keep up with his profile. His dad Jorge, a former steelworker, once gave me his email address and told him to drop him a line if I wanted to speak to his son. That was great from the perspective of a journalist, but maybe Messi needed more professional advisors around him.

When they get big, footballers tend to employ people they like and trust, not necessarily those who will do the best job for them. There are a lot of charismatic chancers in unusual positions in football. The players would rather employ mates, an extension of the dressing room, where everything is a good laugh and wisecracks rule.

Except tax isn't a laughing matter, nor is tax evasion, for which Messi and his dad are being investigated for an alleged £3.4 million fraud in Spain between 2007 and 2009 involving shell companies and tax havens related to Messi's image rights.

Messi could be fined up to €20 million if found guilty – or face jail. Messi has strongly denied doing anything wrong, saying (or rather his advisors have issued a statement on his behalf which states:): "We have never committed any infringement. We have always fulfilled all our tax obligations, following the advice of our tax consultants who will take care of clarifying this situation."

Messi's father added: "It's all a mistake. You have to speak about this to the tax experts and lawyers who need to clear it up. I don't understand what is going on. I don't manage these matters, I am a resident in Argentina."

The court papers claim that the Messis hid "significant income" from image rights by channelling money through tax havens. They say Leo and his father displayed "total opaqueness" towards the Spanish tax authorities.

Maybe they didn't know and weren't getting the right advice off the right people, something they've now rectified. Maybe they'll be found guilty, a first black mark against a player whom even the new Argentine pope was in awe of when they met.

Andy Mitten

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