World Cup bribes, death threats: Corrupt world of FIFA
Hour after hour in a New York City courtroom, the schemes to corrupt world soccer are spilling out.
The millions of dollars in “inducements” to secure contracts to televise matches. The bribes sought by FIFA executives with the power to determine World Cup hosts. The death threats for cooperating with investigators.
It took the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice to disrupt years of embezzlement by officials who abused roles in the global soccer governing body, FIFA, to enjoy a gilded lifestyle. Two years after a sprawling investigation of FIFA led to waves of arrests that shook soccer, the trial of three men is underway and about to enter its second week.
Though the trial in Brooklyn is dealing with corruption allegations before new FIFA leaders emerged in 2016, officials still prominent in soccer are not untouched by the evidence already heard in court — particularly relating to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Here is a look at the talking points from the first week of the trial:
The three men on trial pleaded not guilty to charges they took part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes paid by marketing firms in exchange for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for prestigious tournaments:
— Jose Maria Marin (Brazil): Former president of the Brazilian soccer federation arrested in a raid on a hotel in Zurich in May 2015.
— Juan Angel Napout (Paraguay): Swept up in a second wave of arrests at the same hotel in Zurich in December 2015. As president of South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL, Napout was portraying himself as an agent of reform who could clean up FIFA before being indicted.
— Manuel Burga (Peru): Former Peruvian soccer federation president detained along with Napout at the Baur au Lac hotel close to FIFA’s Swiss headquarters.
More than 40 other officials, business executives and entities have been charged. Many have pleaded guilty, hoping to receive reduced sentences, including Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of the Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, who is a star witness for the prosecution.
QATAR WORLD CUP
No decision has proved more toxic for FIFA than the 2010 vote that handed the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The bid has been stained by suspicion of wrongdoing for years, although FIFA has been unable to uncover evidence it says would warrant stripping the Middle East of its first World Cup.
Usually quick to defend their integrity, the Qataris have been silent on the fresh claims of vote-buying divulged in court.
According to Burzaco, three South Americans were among 22 FIFA executive committee voters who took million-dollar bribes to support Qatar, which beat out the United States in the final round of voting in December 2010.
A rule-breaking voting pact between Qatar and the Spain-Portugal campaign in the 2018 bidding — twice investigated by FIFA’s ethics committee but unproven — was given fresh credence in court by Burzaco, a trusted associate to the late former FIFA senior vice president Julio Grondona, to whom he channeled bribes worth millions.
Grondona was the most influential of South America’s trio of FIFA voters, and would surely have been indicted but for his death in July 2014. The other two voters, Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, were indicted by U.S. prosecutors in 2015 but have avoided extradition from their home countries.
Burzaco testified to conversations and incidents with Grondona in 2011, including a confrontation about media reports of bid bribes with Qatari officials at the five-star Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.
An angry Grondona, Burzaco testified, later complained he got into “all these mess and scandal for only” $1.5 million while two others had fooled him and got $75 million. Those two, the court was told, were Teixeira and Sandro Rosell, a former Nike executive and then-president of Spanish club Barcelona who had business ties to Qatar.
FIFA has not directly commented on last week’s courtroom allegations, inevitably waiting for the conclusion of the trial. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has come under fresh attack in recent weeks by neighboring countries that have severed diplomatic ties with the emirate.
While the probity of the World Cup vote has been thrust back into the spotlight, much of the evidence so far relates to how officials sprayed illegal cash payments to secure broadcasting rights in the Americas.
Leading broadcasters have been implicated by Burzaco’s evidence about the trail of bribes, including Fox Sports (United States), Televisa (Mexico) and TV Globo (Brazil), which deny wrongdoing.
The most dramatic moment in the opening week of the trial saw Burga accused of threatening Burzaco by making a slashing motion on his neck as the witness testified. Burga claimed he was scratching his throat but still had his bail conditions tightened. Burzaco earlier disclosed he became the target of death threats after it emerged he was cooperating with authorities.
A former Argentine government official, Jorge Delhon, killed himself hours after the court was told he took millions in bribes in exchange for handing out television rights.
Jorge Delhon, a lawyer who worked in the administration of former Argentina President Cristina Fernandez, dealt with the now-defunct government program Futbol para Todos (Football for All), which broadcast local soccer matches on public TV. Burzaco implicated Delhon in taking bribes.
The close ties in South America among lawmakers, judges and soccer leaders are becoming clearer.
In a series of WhatsApp messages detailed in court Wednesday, Napout revealed his links to the current state president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes.
Napout passed on to Burzaco a request from Cartes’ private office to buy eight tickets for Argentina’s game against Iran at the 2014 World Cup. Around that time, Napout also noted CONMEBOL had been in a legal case with a businessman and that Cartes “resolved the entire trial and did it all because of me.”
Cartes also advised Napout to “stay close” to Grondona of Argentina to fulfil his ambition to lead CONMEBOL, the WhatsApp messages revealed.
When Argentina reached the semifinals, Napout asked Burzaco to get four tickets for Paraguay’s attorney general to buy. In a WhatsApp message, Napout tells Burzaco, “we have a trial over there. There are two judges mad because I refused” to get tickets.
The desire by FIFA to characterize the trial as dealing with officials long banished from world soccer is made harder when officials currently influential in the game are mentioned in court.
FIFA’s current finance committee chairman, Alejandro Dominguez, was referred to during the trial on Wednesday as “not a very successful businessman (who) will probably request” a bribe.
Burzaco, the prosecution’s star witness, said he was told this about Dominguez by Napout in early 2015. Napout is a Paraguayan like Dominguez, and his predecessor as CONMEBOL leader.
Under current FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Dominguez is a key ally in Zurich as one of FIFA’s eight vice presidents and was rewarded with being made chairman of the finance panel.
Among many soccer officials whose photographs Burzaco was asked by prosecutors to identify on Tuesday were Sunil Gulati, the most influential American at FIFA, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari who heads French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and broadcaster beIN Sports. Al-Khelaifi is under criminal investigation in Switzerland for suspected bribery linked to FIFA awarding beIN broadcast rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.
The U.S. has not accused Gulati or Al-Khelaifi of any offenses.
Several soccer officials indicted in 2015 are absent from court as they fight extradition to the United States:
— Jack Warner (Trinidad and Tobago): Charged in May 2015, four years after quitting as a FIFA vice president to avoid sanctions in the bribery case connected to a presidential election. Later banned for life by FIFA for misconduct during the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding process.
— Marco Polo del Nero (Brazil): Despite being charged with corruption, remains president of the Brazilian federation and met with FIFA’s Infantino during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Del Nero fled Zurich in May 2015 when FIFA colleagues were arrested, quit the executive committee after missing meetings and was then indicted in the U.S. in December 2015.
— Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay): President of CONMEBOL from 1986 to 2013, when he resigned for receiving $130,000 in payments from a former FIFA marketing partner. Wanted in the U.S. on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes linked to marketing and television contracts, Leoz’s extradition was finally approved by a judge in Paraguay last week just as the FIFA trial was getting underway in Brooklyn.
— Ricardo Teixeira (Brazil): A former son-in-law of Joao Havelange, FIFA’s president in 1974-98, Teixeira quit as Brazilian federation head and a FIFA executive committee member in 2012 as corruption allegations mounted.
Status of FIFA cases: https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/file/799016/download
More AP FIFA coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA