A much-anticipated trial involving alleged corruption by Latin American officials tied to the world's most powerful soccer institution kicked off this week in the United States. The case seems set to shine a spotlight on the institutionalization of graft at the top echelons of a sport that is widely beloved across the region.
On November 6, a trial began in a New York court against Manuel Burga, the former president of Peru's soccer federation; José Maria Marin, the former president of Brazil's soccer federation; and Juan Ángel Napout, the former president of Paraguay's soccer federation who was also formerly the head of South America's main soccer governing body, known as CONMEBOL, Reuters reported.
The case centers around alleged corruption involving the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the main body governing soccer on the global level. Prosecutors say FIFA officials took bribes from sports media and marketing companies throughout Latin America in exchange for helping them get the rights to broadcast and promote Latin American soccer games.
US prosecutors first indicted nine FIFA officials and five businessmen on racketeering conspiracy and corruption charges in May 2015. Sixteen additional Latin American soccer officials and businessmen were later charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. In total, US prosecutors have charged 42 individuals and entities in relation to the criminal probe, 24 of whom have already pleaded guilty, according to Reuters. Burga, Marin and Napout are the first defendants to face trial.
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The latest indictment identifies more than 20 schemes that the defendants were allegedly involved in, spanning two decades and stretching across the region. Moreover, it makes clear that the alleged bribery and influence peddling was not limited to helping companies obtain lucrative commercial rights.
For example, the indictment alleges that Jack Warner, the president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), accepted a $10 million bribe from the South African government in exchange for voting for South Africa to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. (South Africa did indeed win its bid.)
According to the indictment, arrangements were made for the South African government to pay the $10 million bribe, which a high-ranking FIFA official subsequently transferred from a FIFA account in Switzerland to a Bank of America account in New York for credit to accounts held by the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) and CONCACAF. However, those accounts were allegedly controlled by Warner from a bank in Trinidad and Tobago, allowing Warner to divert a substantial amount of these fund for his personal use.
Prosecutors say that defendants also went to great lengths to conceal their illicit activities. Among other techniques, they allegedly laundered money from bribes and kickbacks through intermediaries, used "consulting services agreements" and other similar contracts as well as shell companies, bulk cash smuggling and purchases of property to disguise illicit payments.
The so-called "three caudillos," or ringleaders, who wielded the most power in these schemes -- Warner; Nicolas Leoz, the former president of the South American soccer federation CONMEBOL; and Ricardo Teixeira, the former president of Brazil's soccer federation -- have not been extradited to the United States, though they have been indicted in the case.
Warner remains in Trinidad and Tobago contesting his extradition to the United States. Leoz is allegedly under house arrest in Paraguay and is also fighting extradition. Teixeira remains in Brazil, according to the Guardian.
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The revelation of the FIFA graft scandal exposed deeply engrained corruption infecting top international soccer regulatory bodies. And the trial is likely to shed further light on how these schemes worked as well as who was involved. (Plea agreements by other defendants have already revealed some details about the case.)
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The FIFA scandal is also a reminder that sports -- particularly soccer -- provide various opportunities for corruption and criminal activity in Latin America. Soccer ventures have been used to launder money or otherwise conceal criminal activities, as well as to build social capital for criminal organizations.
In other cases, as in Argentina and Uruguay, fan clubs associated with certain teams have evolved into criminal groups engaging in activities like extortion and drug dealing. And international experts have also warned that soccer is susceptible to match fixing schemes by which bettors can unfairly win large amounts of money by rigging games.