Lionel Messi has spoken about how he felt when he was faced with tax fraud charges for the first time, telling Diario Sport that he felt "victimised" by Madrid [the Spanish tax authority and press, not Real Madrid].
Barcelona forward Messi and his father were both found guilty of three counts of tax fraud totalling €4.7 million in 2016. Messi was handed a 21-month suspended sentence -- which prosecutors in Spain later replaced with a fine -- and ordered to pay a fine of €2m.
The first allegations against Messi surfaced in the summer of 2013, the year before the World Cup in Brazil, and he believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him at the time.
Referring only to "Madrid" -- in reference to the press and central tax office in the Spanish capital -- he suggests there was an "order to attack" him.
"I have been through some tough times, like the whole mess with the tax office," he told Sport. "It was hard because of the way they attacked me and said things about me, my family, my dad, my people. I felt attacked from Madrid and it was hard.
"I felt victimised but I was lucky enough to have the backing of those close to me: of Barcelona, of Catalonia, of journalism [in Catalonia]. That kept me a little more calm.
"I think it was an order to attack me, to hit me and to take advantage of the moment of weakness we were in because of everything that was happening.
"That's how it happened because it was Madrid. That's how it was. I knew it. But even knowing it, it annoyed me and hurt me."
Messi and his father were eventually charged two years ago after they were found to have used tax havens in Belize and Uruguay as well as shell companies in the UK and Switzerland to avoid paying taxes on earnings from player's image rights between 2007-2009.
The Argentina international always plead ignorance, saying he was unaware of the significance of certain documents he had signed, but the court dismissed that defence.
During the process, which lasted for around three years, it was suggested Messi could even quit Barcelona in order to get out of Spain, where he felt persecuted.
"No," he said when asked if the charges ever forced him to consider his Camp Nou future. "It was a difficult year [2013-14] because I had an injury, too. It was also the year of the World Cup in Brazil. It was a complicated process because they said a lot of things which were out of place.
"But I always had the support of my family, my wife, my kids... I isolated myself from everything that was going on and enjoyed being with them."