Footballers who ploughed their cash into a tax avoidance scheme could face financial ruin if hit with massive bills to repay the money and fines.
One former Manchester United star invested £33.5million, a mix of his own cash and a bank loan, in a movie-based project that allowed him to significantly reduce the duty he paid on his Premier League salary.
The household name is one of 129 top players who put a total of £250million into the scheme through financial advisers Kingsbridge.
Other clubs with high-profile investors included Liverpool – where one paid £10.4million in cash and loans – Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers.
Kingsbridge staff earned huge bonuses on the back of the payments.
HMRC is now trying to claw back at least 70% of the amounts put in, plus interest and penalties.
It means players face bills similar to their original investments as income paid back to the scheme from the films was taxable.
Critics claim the players knew they were avoiding tax. But experts claim the stars had little or no idea how their money was being used.
Investor Rescue Organisation founder Stuart Cotton said: “Footballers have been demonised over years for investments into tax avoidance schemes.
“The truth is most were not privy to how the arrangements work. The result of investing in such schemes is beyond comprehension at times.”
XPro, which supports former footballers in debt matters, insisted the responsibility lies with scheme promoters and banks, who provided the loans.
A source said: “There is a deep sense of shame attached to this group.
“They are high-profile figures, international footballers. None of them knowingly embarked on a plan to pay less tax.”
Julia Norris, of Manchester-based FS Legal, said the players should have been told schemes were “very high risk” and warned some now face “financial extinction”.
She added: “Where investors try to reduce their tax bill, some might say they got what was coming.
“But many were going to pay any money owed down the line, plus interest. They are not tax dodgers. They are tax delayers.
“One man placed £300,000 of his own money, plus a £7million loan. He now has a £7million tax bill.
“It was sold to him as a cash flow advantage, it is not the evil tax dodge as so often portrayed. Advisers were usually on commission on any loans, plus fees, so did very well indeed.”
But a spokesman for former Kingsbridge advisers David McKee and Kevin McMenamin insisted clients “without exception” were made aware of the products in which they were investing.
He added: “They were clearly advised in relation to commission arrangements.”
HMRC said: “Most tax avoidance schemes don’t work. People can end up paying more than they were trying to avoid.”
How it works
The schemes offered tax relief on money invested in the film industry, into films such as Disney’s Enchanted.
They were popular from 2000-2004, when the Labour government backed British movie makers with tax breaks.
Kingsbridge advisers David McKee and Kevin McMenamin offered financial management to footballers and agents.
The film schemes also attracted other celebrities and business tycoons.
An investor might be asked to pay £100,000 into the scheme. That would be boosted by a bank loan of £900,000, taking their total investment to £1million.
They could delay paying tax on all of this money for the duration of the scheme, often 15 years.
Experts say HMRC then removed the tax breaks, but claim advisers kept on recommending the schemes.
Solicitor Julia Norris told how one property investor put in £300,000 but faces a £7million tax bill as loans took his investment to around £10million.
It was sold as a “cash flow advantage”, with the investor eventually paying the tax. But HMRC argued it was a sophisticated means to avoid tax.
Opinion: Rich, pampered stars pounced upon by sharks
by Andy Dunn
Whatever happens to Manchester City in tomorrow’s Champions League showdown with Liverpool, their players will not be undernourished.
For the likes of Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne, dinner at home is often created in their own kitchens by a Michelin-starred chef.
The idea top footballers have EVERYTHING done for them is only the slightest of exaggerations, trust me.
Players are assets, why give them the distraction of paying their Council Tax themselves when they could be thinking about 4-3-3? It is like that, seriously.
And the profession is so competitive, the rewards so vast, footballers want to concentrate on one thing only. Playing.
That is why they will hand over their financial affairs to whoever comes highly recommended.
Look, the buck stops with these indulged, pampered players, or ex-stars.
If they are faced with huge bills for trying to avoid paying tax in the way everyone who pays to watch them does, then they deserve the flak.
So certainly no sympathy for those caught out but equally culpable are the financial smart alecs who tell them everything is above board, knowing their clients have not got a clue.
If ever there was a group of people susceptible to dodgy advice, it is professional footballers.