Football: Corruption trial begins for 3 Fifa officials

(From left) Manuel Burga, Former president of the Peruvian Football Association (FPF), former Brazilian National Football federation president Jose Maria Marin, and Conmebol President Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay.
(From left) Manuel Burga, Former president of the Peruvian Football Association (FPF), former Brazilian National Football federation president Jose Maria Marin, and Conmebol President Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay. PHOTO: AFP

South American defendants face US justice system, with New York jury to decide their collective fate

NEW YORK • It was the raid that changed the face of the world's most popular sport. Swiss police swooping on a five-star Zurich hotel at dawn, arresting seven football officials at the request of the United States authorities.

Two and a half years later, the only defendants detained in the US who continue to profess their innocence will go on trial.

When US prosecutors unveiled the results of a long investigation on May 27, 2015, the allegations were startling: a quarter of a century of endemic corruption at the heart of Fifa, football's governing body.

A total of 42 officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of US$200 million (S$273 million). It was the biggest corruption scandal in the history of football.

Tens of millions of dollars was hidden in offshore accounts in Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, US officials said. The charges included racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.

But only three people are going on trial - three fabulously wealthy and once-powerful South American football officials.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today at the federal court in Brooklyn. Opening statements could begin next Monday.

It will be a hugely complicated trial, expected to last weeks if not months, with prosecutors expected to present 350,000 pages of evidence and dozens of witnesses.

The most high-profile defendant is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil's Football Confederation - the sport's organising body in one of the premier football-playing nations in the world. Since his arrest in Zurich and extradition, he has been out on bail, living in luxury at Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue skyscraper housing the penthouse and company headquarters of the US President.

Also in the dock is former Fifa vice-president Juan Angel Napout, 59, and Manuel Burga, who led football in Peru until 2014 and was a one-time Fifa development committee member.

A US jury will decide their fate. If convicted, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen.

The worst counts against them carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail. Of the 42 individual defendants, 24 have cut deals with prosecutors, hoping for lighter sentences in exchange for cooperating and confessing to a pared-down number of charges.

Two were sentenced last month: Guatemalan former football official Hector Trujillo to eight months, and British-Greek accountant Costas Takkas to 15 months, 10 of which he has already served.

The other 22 await sentencing, led by Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, who admitted to receiving more than US$6 million in bribes and whose millionaire lifestyle while under house arrest - quaffing champagne, gambling and partying - has infuriated Fifa's lawyers.

The final 15 defendants remain in their home countries, either charged or being tried for similar crimes, or fighting extradition to the United States - such as former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner, who was suspended for life by the Fifa ethnics committee.

Sepp Blatter was about to be re-elected president of Fifa at the time of the Zurich arrests, but the ensuing investigation ultimately precipitated his downfall. He has since been banned from football for six years and his former heir apparent, Michel Platini, for four years.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Corruption trial begins for three FIFA officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe