Barcelona have launched a campaign urging fans to “express their sympathy” in support of forward Lionel Messi after he appealed against a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud imposed by a Catalan court.
Messi and his father, Jorge, were sentenced on Wednesday after a Barcelona court found them both guilty of three counts of defrauding the tax department to the tune of €4.1 million (£3.5m).
Messi’s management company said on Wednesday night that the pair would take appeals to the supreme court, even though neither man is likely to serve any time in prison.
Under Spanish law, sentences under two years are usually suspended but, nonetheless, Barca have called on supporters to voice their “unconditional support on social networks.”
A statement on Barcelona’s website read: “FC Barcelona has set up a campaign in support of Leo Messi following the sentence issued this week against the Argentinian and his father.
“Using the hashtag #WeAreAllLeoMessi while posting a photo or message with both hands open, the campaign is encouraging all Barca fans to express their sympathy for the greatest footballer in the world by voicing their unconditional support on social networks.
“By making it clear that #WeAreAllMessi, we want Leo to know that he is not alone. All members, supporters clubs, fans, athletes, media and everyone else are invited to participate.”
The long-running case relates to a scheme to avoid paying £3.5 million of tax on Messi’s image rights and the disputed tax payments date back to a period from 2007-09.
On Wednesday, in addition to the prison term, he was fined £1.7m for three counts of tax fraud while his father has been given a £1.3m fine.
Messi has always denied any knowledge of his tax affairs, saying he concentrated on football, while his father has claimed he left it all up to financial advisers.
Barcelona’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu took to social media himself to express his support on Friday.
He wrote on his official Twitter page: “Leo, those who attack you are attacking Barca and its history. We’ll defend you to the end. Together forever!’”
29-year-old Messi joined the club’s academy in 2000, aged 13, and his family joined him in Spain soon after.
He made his competitive debut in 2004 at 17 and has now scored 453 goals in 531 appearances, winning five Ballon d’Or trophies, as well as eight league titles and four Champions League winner’s medals.