South American soccer officials go on trial in NY

Sergio Conner
November 14, 2017

Three former South American football officials went on trial on Monday in a scandal that has shaken FIFA, with USA prosecutors accusing them of taking millions of dollars in bribes and defence lawyers portraying them as innocent bystanders to corruption.

Mr. Napout, 59, from Paraquay, was the president of South America's football governing body CONMEBOL, as well as heading the national football federation in his country, while Mr. Burga, 60, is former president of Peru's football federation, and Mr. Marin, 85, is the former president of Brazil's Football Confederation. Since then, over 40 officials have been charged by USA authorities and 23 have pleaded guilty.

"These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets. and they did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe, " assistant USA attorney Keith Edelman said in opening statements in a federal court in Brooklyn. USA attorney Keith Edelman said in court, arguing they "did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe".

This includes the major South American tournaments, the Copa América and the Copa Libertadores, as well as the Brazilian domestic tournament Copa do Brasil.

They were at the St Regis Hotel in Florida to launch the 2016 centenary edition of the Copa America, which would be staged in the USA for the first time. There are drinks, press conferences but lurking under the surface are lies, greed, corruption, ' he said.

Marin "received millions of dollars in bribes at a bank account here in New York", Edelman said.

Edelman said the USA government would present evidence, derived from witness testimony, bank records, covert recordings and other documentation that proves each of the officials had received bribes. The trio then used USA financial institutions to funnel millions of dollars to secret offshore accounts, prosecutors allege. Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, Napout's lawyer, said her client was eager to go to trial and "very optimistic" about the outcome.

Defense attorney Silvia Pinera accused the government of building its case on the testimony of corrupt soccer officials who are seeking leniency in their own cases stemming from a sprawling investigation of Federation Internationale de Football Association.

A key government witness, Argentinian-Italian marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, got a "sweetheart deal" after he turned himself in and began telling stories.

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The trio are the only former officials to have been extradited to the United States and have plead not guilty.

Bruce Udolf, for Burga, said: 'The people that the government have laid down with are some of the most despicable, corrupt people on earth'.

"They've made a lot of righteous charges against a lot of bad people".

Prosecutors say they caught him negotiating a bribe during hours of recorded conversation.

Marin's attorney Charles Stillman argued that his client was innocent of corruption that occurred while he was president of the Brazilian soccer federation, blaming the organization's vice president. "Marin was not one of them", he told the jury. "He was kind of like the youngster standing off to the side, picking up daisies and looking around while others are running full steam ahead".

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys were at pains to explain to the court the significance of Fifa and football itself by comparing them to U.S. sports.

So far more than 40 officials and sporting executives have been charged in what prosecutors say is a $200m conspiracy stretching over a quarter of a century. "It's a passion, a way of life".

With witnesses threatened, documents destroyed and jurors cloaked in anonymity, the trial beginning Monday in a NY courtroom has the trappings of a grisly organized-crime prosecution. All three defendants face extensive prison time if found guilty.

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