NEW YORK (AFP) – Blinded by greed into accepting millions of dollars in bribes, or innocent bystanders?
Prosecution and defence lawyers opened the FIFA corruption trial on Monday, two and a half years after the United States unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world football.
In the dock are three fabulously wealthy South American former football officials from Brazil, Paraguay and Peru, who are charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies. All have pleaded not guilty.
They are just a fraction of the 42 officials and marketing executives, not to mention three companies, indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million.
Unveiled by then US attorney general Loretta Lynch in May 2015, the charges laid bare a quarter of a century of corruption in the heart of FIFA, football’s governing body.
“Lurking underneath the surface are lies, greed and corruption,” assistant attorney Keith Edelman told jurors on Monday, recounting a meeting of officials in Miami in 2014 to celebrate the upcoming 2016 Copa America tournament in the United States.
“Some of these officials had other reasons to celebrate. They had agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the tournament,” Edelman told the federal court in Brooklyn.
The centrepiece of the trial is the US government’s accusations that the three defendants accepted bribes to bestow advertising and marketing rights for tournament matches, through a complex web of fake contracts, shell companies and wire transfers.
The most high-profile defendant is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil’s Football Confederation – the sport’s organizing body in one of the top football-playing nations in the world who has been living on bail at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
His fellow defendants are former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout, 59, from Paraguay who was elected president of CONMEBOL in 2014 and Manuel Burga, who led football in Peru until 2014 and once served as a FIFA development committee member.
“They all cheated the sport,” said Edelman.
“The evidence will show that for over 20 years, the defendants co-conspired and abused the system,” he said, agreeing “to receive secret bribes, taking away money that could have been spent to promote the sport.”
Defense lawyers admitted widespread corruption at FIFA but said there was no evidence that their clients were involved, and sought to discredit government witnesses who are likely to include those who cut plea bargain deals in the case.
“Marin was not one of them. He is like the youngster standing to the side while the others are running full-steam ahead,” said the Brazilian’s lawyer, Charles Stillman.
“We don’t dispute that a lot of aspects of international soccer are corrupt. But your one duty is to decide whether Juan was involved,” said Napout’s lawyer, Silvia Pinera.
Burga’s lawyer Bruce Udolf said his client “was not part of it.”
“They are probably some of the most corrupt people in the world. They are looking at 60 years in prison if they don’t cooperate,” he said of prospective government witnesses.
“It can make someone quite creative when it comes to describing corruption.”
The trial is due to last five to six weeks, and prosecutors are expected to present hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence and dozens of witnesses.
Their fate will be decided by an anonymous jury, chosen after documented attempts at intimidation. If convicted, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen. The most serious counts each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Around two dozen defendants have already pleaded guilty, and two of them were last month sentenced to jail – Guatemalan ex-football official Hector Trujillo to eight months and British-Greek accountant Costas Takkas to 15 months.
While the US investigation did not indict ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter, he was thrown out of the sport in 2015 after FIFA’s ethics committee found him guilty of making an improper $2.1 million payment to then-UEFA chief Michel Platini.
Blatter was banned from the sport for six years, and Platini, his former heir apparent, for four years.