FIFA trial exposes bribes culture; World Cup, Olympic cases loom
GENEVA — The verdict is in: FIFA is not going to move past a sweeping bribery investigation into international soccer so easily.
A former FIFA vice president for South America and the Brazilian head of the 2014 World Cup organizing committee were found guilty of racketeering charges in a federal court in New York on Friday.
Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay and Jose Maria Marin denied the kind of corruption charges that more than 20 soccer and marketing executives working across the Americas have already admitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. More have been indicted and are fighting extradition.
Jurors will resume next week deliberating on racketeering charges against the third defendant, Manuel Burga, Peru’s former soccer leader who sat on a FIFA panel distributing tens of millions of dollars in project grants.
Evidence in a six-week trial often did not directly touch soccer games and commercial deals run from FIFA’s home in Zurich.
Still, a deep culture of corruption was exposed among people embedded in FIFA’s so-called “football family.”
With prosecutors in four countries now helping each other investigate sports corruption — including in World Cup and Olympic bid races — here is a closer look at the FIFA trial:
The party’s over?
For more than 20 years, some soccer officials acted as if they were entitled to kickbacks from broadcasting and sponsorship deals. And they acted as if they were untouchable by sports judicial bodies, despite warning signs from criminal and civil court cases that touched FIFA in Switzerland up to a decade ago.
In Brooklyn federal court a picture was painted of South American men high in the FIFA hierarchy routinely taking payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions.
The three defendants were second-tier figures in the bigger FIFA picture. Yet each got $4.4 million to $10.5 million in bribes since 2010, prosecutors said.
In the U.S. federal agencies’ wider investigation of soccer officials across the Americas, some of the more than 40 people charged allegedly were paid and took bribes dating back 25 years. Many pleaded guilty for reduced sentences.
It was no secret that some South American soccer leaders were corrupt.
The two men convicted Friday were relatively late arrivals on the soccer bribery scene. At times in court it seemed a previous generation who long held South America’s influence at FIFA were also on trial.
Indeed, Napout and Burga were said to be in a “Group of Six” seeking a share of power and bribes routinely taken by Julio Grondona of Argentina, Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay.
Grondona was FIFA’s senior vice president — second in command to Sepp Blatter — and finance committee chairman when he died in July 2014 aged 82. He is “co-conspirator 1” in Department of Justice indictments unsealed in 2015.
Teixeira and Leoz were also indicted but have not been extradited. Both left the FIFA executive committee by April 2013 to avoid ethics committee bans for taking kickbacks from World Cup TV deals in a previous scandal known as the ISL case.
As new FIFA leaders try to win public trust, its vice president from South America is another Paraguayan, Alejandro Dominguez.
Yet Dominguez, the new FIFA finance chairman, was described unfavorably in court. Star prosecution witness Alejandro Burzaco said Napout told him Dominguez was “not a very successful businessman (who) will probably request” a bribe.
Qatar World Cup
The tiny, wealthy 2022 World Cup host nation also had a tough trial.
Qatar spent much of the past seven years denying it bought victory or acted improperly toward FIFA voters.
Still, testimony in Brooklyn suggested a broader plan to build influence among voters’ colleagues, even if the defendants had no vote when FIFA’s executive committee picked the 2018-2022 World Cup hosts in December 2010.
However, Grondona, Teixeira and Leoz did have votes. South America’s trio ultimately supported Qatar in a five-nation 2022 contest, beating the U.S. in the final round.
In court, star witness Burzaco — an Argentine marketing executive who paid bribes and made a deal with prosecutors to testify — described his associate Grondona complaining to Qataris at a five-star hotel in Rio de Janeiro about selling his vote too cheaply.
Grondona said he got into “all these mess and scandal for only” $1.5 million, while Teixeira got tens of millions,” Burzaco said.
Another witness, from a different Argentine agency, testified that a ledger of bribes included payments of $750,000 and $500,000 to South American soccer federation presidents who did not have World Cup hosting votes. The payments were labeled “Q2022.”
At a Madrid hotel before the 2010 Champions League final, South American soccer officials were told that $15 million from Qatari interests was available as bribes money, according to one witness who has pleaded guilty, Luis Bedoya of Colombia.
FIFA the victim
FIFA has paid tens of millions of dollars to American lawyers and media consultants to help persuade the Department of Justice it is a victim of corruption, and not complicit.
That investment seemed to pay off in court. Direct references to FIFA leaders and staffers were rarely heard.
That should help FIFA get a share of more than $200 million in forfeitures by agencies and people who have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the wider case.
FIFA’s restitution claim in March 2016 was for $38.2 million plus legal fees and compensation for reputational damage.
A longer-term issue for FIFA is its 2026 and 2030 World Cup broadcast partners. While not charged in the American case, Fox Sports, Globo of Brazil, Televisa of Mexico were mentioned in testimony. They allegedly teamed up to bribe Grondona with $15 million to secure two-tournament deals in South America.
Another 2026-2030 rights holder, Qatar’s BeIN, is already under criminal investigation in Switzerland for suspected bribery in that deal.
2026 World Cup host
On June 13 in Moscow, FIFA member federations will pick the 2026 World Cup host.
The North American bid – splitting 60 games in the United States, 10 in Canada, 10 in Mexico –is favored to win.
But will voters reward the nation whose law enforcement agencies shook FIFA to its core? They might be persuaded by money. FIFA relies on World Cup commercial deals for about 85 percent of its income.
Who is next?
Brooklyn; Bern, Switzerland; Paris; Rio de Janeiro.
In all four cities federal prosecutors are pursuing allegations of corruption in global sports, including winning bids for the 2006, 2010, 2018 and 2022 World Cups, plus the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.
Suspects so far include Germany soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, 2016 Rio Olympics organizer Carlos Nuzman, and one-time International Olympic Committee rising star Frank Fredericks.
A protected witness in the U.S. is Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of the Moscow testing laboratory.
In Brooklyn, a spin-off case saw a former FIFA audit committee member from Guam plead guilty to taking bribes from an Olympic Council of Asia account. The clearly identified “co-conspirator 2” in that case is a kingpin of Olympic politics, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait.
Prosecutors in four cities, sharing information, taking years to build cases.
More seem sure to follow.