In Good Conscience

Trials starting to show how deep rabbit hole of corruption goes

Lanus, on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, was put on football's global map twice within a matter of hours on Tuesday.

First, it's most famous son, Diego Maradona, posted a video saying: "Long live Lanus! I do not have the slightest doubt that they will put everything in to win. God wants them to get this tournament".

Maradona, born in the Policlinico Evita Hospital in Lanus and raised in the nearby shanty town Villa Fiorito, was acknowledging one of the wonders of his game.

Club Atletico Lanus came back from three goals down to beat River Plate 4-3 over two legs in the Copa Libertadores. Over the next fortnight, Lanus will play and away against Brazilian club Gremio in the final. Never before in their 102-year history have Lanus reached this stage.

Aside from passing on God's encouragement to his hometown team, Maradona separately signalled his readiness to return as the national coach of Argentina - he was last in charge at the 2010 World Cup. The Al Fujairah coach messaged the Argentinian Football Association to offer his services.

The national team lost a friendly against Nigeria in Russia on Tuesday, prompting Maradona to tweet: "I am angry because they have thrown away our prestige, but it's not the fault of the lads. I want to come back!!!"

This is just the start of the trials. It involves three of the 40 so far charged under US jurisdiction, among whom 23 have pleaded guilty.

Others are still fighting extradition requests.

Crazier things have happened.

More sinister ones, too. Also on Tuesday, a body was found by the railway track in Lanus.

Local authorities said it was Jorge Delhon, a 52-year-old lawyer who, hours earlier, had been accused of taking US$2 million (S$2.7 million) in exchange for broadcasting rights while he worked for the Argentinian government.

Some news reports say Delhon jumped in front of a train, and left a suicide note saying: "I love you all, I can't believe..."

However, Pamela Chen, the presiding US district court judge in the case, interrupted a defence attorney when he said his witness had broken down because of the suicide. "You call it suicide," she said, "No one knows that for sure."

Judge Chen, who has already sentenced previous defendants in the so-called FifaGate trials in New York, was responding to claims that the witness, who broke down in court, had been threatened with the throat-slitting gesture from one of the defendants in the dock.

That man's lawyer claimed it was nothing more than his client scratching an itch, and that his defendant was a " gentle man."

The judge nevertheless placed that gentle man under house arrest and denied him access to a phone or computer.

Chen had warned, at the start of this week's trial, of the need for heightened security due to possible witness intimidation.

This is just the start of the trials. It involves three of the 40 so far charged under US jurisdiction, among whom 23 have pleaded guilty.

Others are still fighting extradition requests by America, mainly from South and Central American countries.

The witness who is "co-operating" with the US Justice Department and who broke down in court this week is former sports marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco.

He makes no bones about a tell-all in the hope of avoiding jail time for his own substantial crime on the FifaGate bandwagon.

Burzaco is not the only compliant defendant turned whistle blower. Chuck Blazer, the American who was formerly Fifa's head of marketing and TV negotiation, kicked it off when the FBI fingered him for non payment of taxes.

Blazer helped entrap his fellow Fifa cronies by using a microphone hidden in a key ring, but he died of cancer last July. He is not the only Fifa grandee to cheat justice this way.

Argentinian Julio Grondona, who headed Fifa's finance committee and its TV advisory panel for decades, died in 2014 while Joao Havelange, former Fifa boss before Sepp Blatter, died in Rio de Janeiro last May.

They take to the grave the crimes of fixing the Golden Triangle of football, television and sponsorship money that this is all about.

The broadcasters accused under oath this week include Fox Sports in America, Globo in Brazil, Grupo Televiza in Mexico, and Mediapro in Spain.

All disown the alleged criminal payments.

The sums of money mentioned in this trial - a forerunner to the many that will keep the judge and the lawyers occupied for years to come - would have made Al Capone's eyes water.

He was the Chicago mafia boss jailed in the end for tax evasion in the 1930s.

The process is similar: The Federal Bureau of Investigation followed the money trail and persuaded crooks lower down the scale of the corruption mountain to turn informant in hopes of lessening their own punishment.

A Guatemalan high court judge, Hector Trujillo, was sentenced to eight months in US jail last month after admitting to wire fraud and conspiracy, and accepting US$200,000 in bribes from a marketing company.

Those figures pale beside the 350,000 pages of evidence being used against Jose Maria Marin, former head of Brazil's Football Federation, Juan Angel Napout, former head of the South American football confederation, and Manuel Braga who was chief of Peru's football federation.

Their accuser so far in this trial, Burzaco, told the jury about bribes to Grondona, and specified that Napout received US$4.5 million, US$3.6 million to Burga and US$2.7 million to Marin to secure TV rights for tournaments.

The three men all deny all charges.

Their trial is expected to last five more weeks. One man not even implicated until he was named in court this week, died on the railway tracks in Lanus.

The show trials have barely begun. The allegations in open court implicate each of the three men, and their votes, to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Fifa tells us that tournament cannot be violated. No matter how many die in the process?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Trials starting to show how deep rabbit hole of corruption goes'. Print Edition | Subscribe