Bribery charges presented as South American soccer officials go on trial
A New York court has heard allegations of bribes totalling millions of dollars over two decades as three once-senior South American soccer officials went on trial yesterday.
Juan Ángel Napout, the Paraguayan former president of Conmebol, José Maria Marin, the former head of the CBF, the Brazilian soccer federation, and Manuel Burga, the former president of the FPF, the Peruvian federation, are facing charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
The three men all deny the charges, which emanate from a wide-ranging US investigation into bribery and corruption in international soccer, which has been christened Fifa-gate, as many of the accused had links to the sport’s world governing body.
The bribes were alleged to have been paid to soccer officials by sports executives for marketing and media rights to events including the Copa America, South America’s national teams tournament, the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s elite clubs competition, and the Copa do Brasil, the Brazilian cup competition.
Presenting the charges to a crowded courtroom, Keith Edelman, an assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, told the jury: “These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets.”
He added that they “did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe... For over 20 years, the defendants and their co-conspirators have abused the system.”
Edelman gave an example of an event held in Miami in May 2014 to announce the Copa America Centenario, a special centenary edition of the event (pictured), which went ahead in USA in 2016, but for which officials present had already "agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the tournament."
However, while they acknowledged there was corruption by Fifa officials, defence attorneys for the three accused deny their clients were involved, claiming the US government is relying on the testimony of individuals who have already pleaded guilty and co-operated with the authorities in order to get more lenient sentences.
Silvia Pinera, the attorney for Napout, the president of the Paraguayan football federation before acceding to the Conmebol post in 2014, said: “What this case is about is a government concluding that everyone involved at high levels of soccer is dirty.
“The FBI and the IRS did a wonderful job… But they didn’t find one wire transfer of dirty money into Juan’s accounts.”
Over 40 soccer officials and corporate executives have been indicted by the US Department of Justice as part of the scandal, which broke in May 2015, with multiple arrests in a dawn raid on a Zurich hotel ahead of a Fifa Congress, and 23 have pleaded guilty in USA.
Last month, Hector Trujillo, the ex-secretary general of the Guatemalan football federation and a former judge, became the first official to be sentenced. He was sent to prison for eight months after pleading guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy.
The trial in New York is expected to last five weeks and the defendants face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.