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Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is the highest paid athlete in the world. Last year, his salary was $77-million. He made another $46-million in endorsements. It's a lot of money.

Some people would say too much money to be paid for kicking a ball for a living. Many of those people seem to have jobs in the Spanish government.

On Tuesday, Ronaldo became the latest target in Spain's war on its footballing overclass.

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The Portuguese national stands accused of a €14.7-million ($21.8-million) fraud over three years involving unpaid taxes on his image rights. The details are very detailed indeed, but in the broad strokes, involve a series of shell companies used to divert income. Spain's tax burden on high earners is onerous. Ronaldo's accountants shifted money to places such as Ireland where it is less so. Whether that is illegal has yet to be determined.

During the months-long investigation stage of this process, Ronaldo told a Portuguese radio station "Quien no debe, no teme" – roughly, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." He still voluntarily gave the Spanish government $9-million in an effort to smooth things out. Apparently, that wasn't enough.

If Ronaldo seems rather blasé about the whole thing, it is because we've been here before in recent years. Many times.

Lionel Messi recently fought his own tax conviction all the way to Spain's Supreme Court. That body demurred, leaving Messi's 21-month jail sentence intact. The Argentinean won't be going to actual prison – in Spain, sentences of less than two years regularly revert to probation – but he's going to have to pay back a lot of money.

Many of Messi's Barcelona teammates – including Javier Mascherano, Alexis Sanchez and Neymar – have also faced prosecution. Mascherano got a one-year jail term. Sanchez doesn't even work in Spain any more, but he is going to lose a villa there. Neymar has so many ongoing issues, his lawyers likely have lawyers. Many other players of lower profile have also been nabbed.

In Spanish footballing circles, the situation has been sold as a conspiracy against Barcelona by the country's political elites, most of whom live in Madrid. Ronaldo's prosecution puts that notion to rest.

What this really is is something more interesting. This is what happens when a major financial downturn intersects with the modern obsession with athlete salaries.

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It started in 2005 with something referred to in Spain as the "Beckham Law," after the English footballer. Around the time David Beckham moved to Real Madrid, Spain adjusted its rules so that foreign contract workers would no longer be treated as residents for the purposes of taxation.

What they earned outside the country would be their business, and what they earned inside it would be taxed at a low, flat rate. It was a sweet deal intended to attract top-end talent in all fields, not just football.

A few years later, the Spanish economy cratered. The country's youth-unemployment rate would eventually top 50 per cent, forcing an entire generation to move elsewhere in order to find work.

But the country's top football teams – particularly Real and Barcelona – were unaffected. They continued to spend wildly on player transfers and salaries. By Forbes's estimation, they are the second and third most valuable sports franchises on Earth.

So while a country was losing its children as economic émigrés, Spain's visiting footballers were getting fat off the country's largesse. It was not a good look.

So in 2010, they changed the law back. Most foreign workers were grandfathered into the scheme. There was one notable exception – soccer players. This wasn't a financial play, so much as a public-relations effort targeting people who were not in the position to cry poor. After all, the public knows exactly how much they make. It's printed in the paper.

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Predictably, the players did not happily accept suddenly ceding a large chunk of their gross income to the taxman. They began ferreting about for new ways to hide their money, leading to all sorts of shenanigans. Most of the crimes committed happened just after the Beckham Law was repealed. It has taken authorities this long to trace them back.

Aside from a headline, the news hook here is pretty thin. Like his colleagues before him, it's likely that Ronaldo will be perp-walked into a court, made to pay his back taxes and a (relatively) small fine, perhaps given a jail sentence he will never serve and be allowed to continue on as he has before.

It's close to becoming a badge of honour in La Liga. How do you know you matter? You're famous enough to have been investigated.

Ronaldo's net worth is well into nine figures. Aside from moving a decimal one place to the left on his 2017 return, this won't affect his life in the least.

What the cases of Ronaldo and the others do give us is some small sense of what might be coming. Since the end of the Second World War, the West has enjoyed a period of nearly uninterrupted growth. Professional sports and professional sportsmen have benefited disproportionately from that upward trend.

What happens when the financial system goes really wrong for a lot of people over a long period of time? A bunch of things, but one reasonably suspects one of the first will be a search for scapegoats. Who's to blame and who should pay?

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Bankers, certainly. Politicians, perhaps. The lawyers usually get it right in the neck.

But some of the first people they'll come for are the pro athletes. They are to North America and Europe in the 21st century what the aristocracy was to the Parisian mob in 1789 – highly visible and obsessed over in a way that can easily flip to bitter resentment.

Currently, our collective culture values circuses over bread, because most people have enough bread.

What Spain is proving is that when bread gets scarce, one effective way to divert attention is to go after the circus.

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