Earlier this month, Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez reached an agreement with the Spanish tax authorities over alleged tax fraud, becoming the latest professional footballer to become embroiled in a battle with Spain’s treasury over tax.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the best footballers on the planet (in whichever order you like) have both appeared in Spanish courts over tax – leaving supporters both amused and aghast that one or both of the pair could end up serving time. Similarly, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho reached an agreement over his tax affairs in November.
Sanchez and Mourinho both live and work outside of Spain in England, but their cases, like Messi’s and Ronaldo’s, are indicative of a trend that shows a naivety on behalf of those involved in the game.
‘Those involved in the game’ includes that modern sporting bogeyman, the agent. Consider the case against Sanchez. Was the case against him an intimidation attempt by the Spanish government? Fernando Felicevich, Sanchez’s agent, thinks so, accusing the Spanish tax department of exerting ‘threats and public pressure through the media’.
Government interference in football’s affairs is not limited to Europe. China has announced that it will impose a 100 per cent tax on transfers over CNY45 million ($7 million) as part of an attempt to stem capital outflows. Chinese clubs have spent more money over the last two seasons than clubs globally after government backing in an attempt to compete with European leagues. Now, it has been reduced to a trickle.
An own goal?
Back in the UK, HMRC allegedly investigated up to 90 players in September last year, and in November, issued a reminder to clubs of the necessity of ‘total transparency’ over transfer deals; in April, Newcastle United and West Ham United were both raided by HMRC over alleged income tax and National Insurance fraud.
Before Manchester City became the world’s richest club, they were owned by Thai business man – and the country’s former prime minister – Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial figure for whom you can take your pick of the alleged allegations against him, amongst them, money laundering. His visa was revoked by the British government.
Are governments unfairly picking on easy (and wealthy) targets? No.
Professional football deserves scrutiny for the manner in which fraud, bribery, corruption and tax evasion are handled by clubs, players and owners not because the sport is uniquely susceptible to iniquitous behaviour but because the money involved and the publicity attached the game warrants attention.
The cash that was pumped into English football in the early 90s rescued the game’s reputation after a decade of hooliganism and poor attendances, turning it into the global juggernaut that it is today. Now the appeal of the English Premier League shoulders much of the responsibility for football’s position at the summit of world sport.
With football this country’s largest cultural export it’s incumbent upon those in the game to demonstrate a commitment to transparency we demand of other firms, business and organisations in the UK.
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