Inside a packed New York City courtroom, and under heightened security on Monday, US prosecutors accused three former South American football administrators of taking millions of dollars in bribes as part of a web of endemic corruption at the heart of the sport’s governing body, Fifa.
José María Marín, the 85-year-old former head of Brazil’s football federation, Juan Ángel Napout, the 59-year-old Paraguayan who was president of South American football’s governing body Conmebol, and Manuel Burga the 60-year-old former president of the Peruvian football federation, have denied multiple counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
Their trial is the first in a sprawling federal corruption investigation of Fifa that was announced in May 2015 after several officials were arrested during a morning raid on a hotel in Zurich. Since then more than 40 officials and marketing executives have been charged by US authorities with 23 already pleading guilty.
As the defendants looked on, Marín staring ahead, Burga with his head in his hand and Napout appearing to take frantic notes, assistant US attorney Keith Edelman pointed to each of the men and told the jury: “These defendants cheated the sport in order to benefit themselves.” He added that they “did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe”.
The trial will focus on how marketing and sponsorship rights were sold for two major South American tournaments, the Copa América and the Copa Libertadores, as well as the Brazilian domestic tournament Copa do Brasil. The officials are accused of regularly taking six-figure bribes.
During his opening remarks, Edelman singled out an event in May 2014 in Miami, Florida, where Fifa officials had gathered to announce a special centennial expansion of the Copa América, which would be held in the United States for the first time.
“By all appearances it’s a proud moment in the history of the game,” Edleman told the jury. “There are drinks, press conferences but underneath the surface are lies, greed, corruption. Some of these officials had other reasons to celebrate, they had agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the tournament.”
Edelman said the US government would present evidence, derived from witness testimony, bank records, covert recordings and other documentation that proved each of the officials had received bribes. Marín, Edelman said, had received “millions into a US bank account”. Napout, the prosecutor alleged, had received his money in cash, sometimes “over $100,000 at a time”, whereas Marín, who had been the subject of a domestic corruption investigation, had told a middleman to “hold on to the money until the coast was clear”.
In each of their openings defense attorneys did not deny there had been corruption at Fifa, but said their clients were not part of it. They accused the US government of relying on the testimony of Fifa officials who had already pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities in order to reduce their own sentences.
Argentinian-Italian marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco is expected to be a key government witness, and according to Napout’s attorney, Silvia Pinera, got a “sweetheart deal” after he “turned himself in and began telling stories”. She accused the US government of paying other guilty officials hundreds of thousands of dollars to remain in the country to testify and providing their families with visas to the United States.
“They’ve been here for years on our dimes,” Pinera told the jury. “We’re the taxpayer.”
Bruce Udolf, an attorney for Burga, argued that the government had “simply gone too far” and “simply got it wrong” by charging his client, labelling the allegations “despicable”.
“They’ve made a lot of righteous charges against a lot of bad people. But Manuel Burga is not one of them,” Udolf said.
Charles Stillman, Marín’s attorney, likened the conspiracy to a match of football among children, arguing his client had remained out of the game while other more senior officials dictated the play. “Marín was not one of them,” he told the jury. “He’s kind of like the youngster standing off to the side, picking up daisies.”
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys were at pains to explain to the court the significance of Fifa and football itself by comparing them to US sports.
“It [Fifa] is kind of like the NFL or Major League Baseball but it’s for soccer all around the world,” Edelman told the jury. He added: “Here and around the world soccer is more than just a sport. It’s a passion, a way of life.”
The trial is expected to last up to six weeks. All three defendants face extensive prison time if found guilty.