Having reached my majority in an era that nowadays pops up in my kids’ History exams, I am today at a stage in life where names and faces are prone to be mixed-and-matched. Every time I hear mention of Lionel Messi I invariably see Lionel Richie’s mustachioed head protruding from an FC Barcelona shirt. It was, therefore, no surprise that when the world was confronted with the shocking news last week that Mr Messi and his father (Mr Messi) are facing criminal investigation in Spain for tax evasion, my first reaction was: “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”
Top sportsmen really do have complicated financial lives and I admit a little sympathy for the World’s Greatest Footballer if he did (and he vigorously denies it) get caught up in a bit of over-zealous tax dribbling. If convicted, we are told he faces an undisclosed fine and up to 6 years in a Spanish lock-up.
Now, unless you are one of those people with piles of cash stashed away in increasingly less remote tax havens waiting for a knock at the door, your reaction to this is probably: “Nobody is above the law and if he broke the law he should be punished and if that means depriving him of his liberty so-be-it”. I should have added, you are probably also not a Barcelona fan. Nor am I, but I am afraid I don’t think I agree with you. So there.
Apart from the fact that the Spanish legal system is probably too incompetent for him to be brought to trial before the end of his natural life (he is currently 25 years old) and they will need to find a rabid Real Madrid supporting judge with a fanatical death wish to convict him, the modern world thankfully operates under a system of Moral Relativism. And modern (as well as not-so-modern) governments know how to cleverly render Absolute Immorality relative for the better good of the world and for the even better good of their poll ratings.
Earlier this month I gave my teenage son a night tour of South-East London where I spent much of my childhood. Driving up Denmark Hill (around the spot where Pip attends a wedding at the end of Great Expectations) I told him that, but for the quick reactions of an anonymous bus passenger thereabouts in 1944, neither I nor he would have ever seen the light of day. My mother was standing on the bus as a V2 rocket exploded nearby (it was probably a V1 doodlebug which told you it was coming – but that would ruin the story). The gentleman threw her to the floor just as all the windows imploded.
Well, you might have thought that, as the war came to an end and prominent Nazis and their prominent assistants came up for trial, the genius who developed the deadly V2 would have found himself dangling at the end of a rope. What actually happened was that Werner von Braun was spirited off to America where he was the “One giant leap for mankind” to Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man”. He developed the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo missions. With that, America won the space race, countless lives were enriched and the Allies saved a perfectly good piece of rope.
On the other hand, look what happened to poor Oscar Wilde. The author of some of the most important literary works to do the rounds in the 20th century, as well as one of the greatest wits in history, lay dead in a cheap Paris Hotel in 1900 only 46 years into a hyper-productive life. Already bankrupted by an ill-advised libel case that backfired, in 1895 he was sentenced to two years hard labour for being gay (for which a growing number of countries now condemn offenders to get married). On release from prison he went steadily downhill. While, without that prison sentence, we would never have had the haunting Ballad of Reading Gaol (that is Jail in potty English) or De Profundis, we would have surely had a colossal output that was lost to the world before it was even created.
If Lionel Messi is found guilty, he may well deserve his fate – but the world does not. Here is a genius with a limited number of years to work his magic. If the world reacted with justified outrage at the destruction of World Heritage sites in Timbuktu by the Taleban – even though Timbuktu is the traditional end of the world and most of us will never go there – the destruction of the career of a temporary World Heritage site with a planet-wide following must surely be considered all the more outrageous.
Nevertheless, for the indignant righteous, there is a compromise. The Spanish could hurry through the trial, find the Argentinian guilty and then offer him two alternatives – a lengthy prison sentence OR an application for Spanish nationality so that he could play for Spain in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. However morally relative all this would be, it would be worth it just to see the faces of those Argies as they crash out in the group stage.