How is the world’s best football player supposed to prepare for a big tournament that his country hasn’t won in a long time? Putting in long amounts of time on the training field: check. Having detailed tactical discussions about the opponents: check. Attending a court trial in a different country just six days before the opener: Okay, maybe not.

Unfortunately, that is the predicament facing arguably the world’s greatest footballer, Lionel Messi. On Thursday, the Barcelona star arrived at the Eighth Court of Barcelona to testify and defend himself against charges of tax fraud amounting to €4.1 million (Rs 30.7 crore) in the period between 2007 and 2009.

The accusations are serious. Spanish prosecutors have called for a 22-month sentence, although that looks quite unlikely. The current FIFA Ballon d’Or holder has defended himself earlier by saying he did not have any idea of his finances and implicitly trusted his father.

Messi faces trial

“I have signed things, but I never look at the contracts,” Messi is supposed to have said at an earlier testimony. “I trust my dad, who is in charge of my things, and who tells me what I do.”

However, a high court in Barcelona had ruled in June 2015 that the Barcelona superstar should not be granted impunity for being unaware of what was happening to his finances. As a consequence, both senior and junior Messi had to attend Thursday’s trial after skipping the first day of proceedings on Tuesday.

While the consequences of the trial are not likely to be severe – Messi has already made a €5 million (Rs 37.5 crore) “corrective payment” and is likely to receive a suspended sentence at worst if the judgement goes against him, the timing of the trial has come as a severe impediment to his and Argentina’s chances of lifting their first Copa America title since 1993.

The Argentina captain has already missed a key part of his national team’s preparations for the tournament because of the frequent shuttling between Barcelona and the United States, where the Copa America is being held. Messi is scheduled to fly out of Barcelona and rejoin the team on Friday, four days before Argentina kick off their campaign against Chile.

Messi also left the field during Argentina’s warm-up against Honduras last week, receiving a blow to his back. The injury and the lack of significant preparation makes him a doubtful starter for Argentina in their first game. The impending verdict is also likely to play on his mind, and could also affect his performance in the tournament.

Injuries overshadow the Copa

The suspense over one of the world’s most recognised footballers has come as a dampener for a tournament that is already suffering from other big names pulling out. There will be no Neymar in the Brazil team at the United States – the Barcelona wunderkind has decided to reserve his energies for his team in the Olympics in August, which leaves Brazil short of a potent attacking spearhead.

In theory, Neymar’s absence should make Brazil’s traditional rivals Uruguay overjoyed, but the La Celeste have problems of their own to contend with. Their main striker Luis Suarez was in incredible form for Real Madrid in the last Spanish La Liga season, topping the charts with 40 goals, but will miss at least a part of the Copa America due to a hamstring injury. He has already been ruled out of Uruguay’s opener against Mexico, but will play in the later stages of the tournament if he can make a quick recovery.

Finally, even Real Madrid’s star goalkeeper Keylar Navas of Costa Rica was ruled out of the tournament on Tuesday after he suffered an Achilles tendon injury during the Champions League final.

All these injuries, along with Messi’s court trial, has already taken the sheen out of a tournament that was supposed to be a celebration of a century of South American football. With some of South America’s biggest football stars missing out, the Copa America Centenario could be in danger of becoming just another distraction in a jam-packed schedule – even before the first whistle is blown.