• Spanish tax authorities accuse Messi of defrauding state
• Fraud alleged to have started before Messi came of age
The man widely acclaimed as the world's greatest living footballer, Argentina's Lionel Messi, has been accused by Spanish tax authorities of fraud totalling more than €4m (£3.4m).
The FC Barcelona player and his father, Jorge, are alleged to have filed fraudulent tax returns for four years from 2006 to 2009, according to tax crime prosecutors in the eastern region of Catalonia.
The fraud is alleged to have started before he came of age and while his father was in charge of his financial affairs.
A complex network of companies based in Britain, Switzerland, Belize and Uruguay were allegedly used to keep his income out of the sight of tax authorities.
"The initiative to commit fraud came from his father," tax authorities said, according to Spain's EFE news agency.
Tax prosecutors have lodged a writ at a court in Gava, the Mediterranean beachside town outside Barcelona where Messi lives.
The court has yet to decide whether it will open a case against the man who has been Fifa's world player of the year for a record-breaking four seasons in a row.
The sentence for the three separate tax crimes he is accused of is generally between two and six years in jail, with a fine six times the amount defrauded, according to EFE.
In a statement released via his Facebook page, Messi said: "We have just known through the media about the claim filed by the Spanish tax authorities. We are surprised about the news, because 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, who will be 26 this month, is one of the world's highest-paid athletes. Forbes magazine, which lists him as the world's tenth highest earning athlete, estimates that his wages are over $20m (almost £13m) a season.
He earns an estimated further $21m in endorsements from sponsors including Adidas, PepsiCo and P&G.
Earlier this year Messi signed an extended contract with Barcelona, with his salary, which is heavily driven by incentives, understood to begin at around €11m (£8.5m) a year net. Barcelona declined to comment on the complaint.
Messi came on for the final half-hour of Argentina's World Cup 2014 qualifier against Ecuador in Quito on Tuesday which ended in a 1-1 draw – a match in which Javier Mascherano was sent off for kicking the driver of a medical buggy.
On Wednesday he was reported to be enjoying a day off.
Argentina's coach, Alejandro Sabella, has said Messi was expected to be included in the lineup for a friendly against Guatemala on Friday.