MADRID, June 13 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi's picture was on the front pages rather then in the sports sections of the Spanish media on Thursday, after the World Player of the Year and his father were accused of tax fraud.
The news is damaging to the Argentina and Barcelona forward's image, and he joins a long list of top athletes who have been investigated by the tax authorities, including Luis Figo, Boris Becker and Diego Maradona.
"Leo Messi marked financially by the tax man," wrote daily El Pais, while sports paper Marca's front page said: "A symbol under suspicion."
The 25-year-old player and his father Jorge Messi were accused on Wednesday of defrauding the Spanish state of more than four million euros after allegedly filing fraudulent tax returns for the years 2006 to 2009.
The prosecutor's office for tax crimes in Catalonia alleged that the sale of Messi's image rights had been hidden from the authorities via a complex web of shell companies in Uruguay, Belize, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
"It is something that surprises us because we have never committed any offence," Messi said in a statement on his Facebook page.
Under Spanish law an examining magistrate has to decide whether to continue the investigation and whether to bring formal charges.
"If an (examining) judge accepts the case, he would call Messi and his father to give evidence, which is what the tax authority has called for," the prosecutor's office said.
With the Spanish government under pressure to reach tough European deficit reduction targets, they have cranked up their efforts against tax evasion.
Former tennis world number one Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was ordered to pay 3.5 million euros in unpaid income tax in 2009 after it was deemed she was a resident of Spain rather than of Andorra, as she had said.
Last June, a Spanish public prosecutor accused Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o of conspiring to evade 3.5 million euros in taxes owed on income from his image rights when he was playing for Barcelona between 2006-2009.
Eto'o allegedly created two companies, one in Hungary and another in Spain, and used them to channel income obtained from ceding his image rights to Barca and sportswear maker Puma, the prosecutor said.
In March last year, former World Player of Year Figo was ordered to pay some 2.4 million euros in income tax to the Spanish government from his time as a Barcelona player, in a supreme court ruling.
The former Portugal international had appealed against a 2008 demand from the Spanish tax authorities which claimed monies due from 1997 to 1999 relating to his image rights when he was a player at the Nou Camp.
Outside Spain, former tennis world number one Steffi Graf's father went to prison after a tax investigation in Germany and compatriot Becker, another former tennis world number one, was fined for tax evasion in 2002.
In Italy, former MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi agreed to pay $51 million to Italy's tax agency in 2008 after a lengthy investigation.
Argentine great Maradona recently denied that he owed Italian authorities 38 million euros in unpaid taxes. (Reporting by Mark Elkington and Teresa Larraz, editing by Clare Fallon)