NEW YORK – Three former South American soccer officials went on trial Monday in a scandal that shook the sport’s governing body, with U.S. prosecutors accuse them of taking millions of dollars in bribes and defense attorneys portray them as innocent bystanders to corruption.
Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga, and Juan Angel Napout were the first football officials to be tried in the extensive research of the FIFA. The prosecutors accuse them of taking part in a 24-year-old arrangement under which at least $150 million on the bribes paid by the marketing companies in return for lucrative broadcast and the hosting rights for the prestigious tournaments.
“These defendants cheated the sport to line their own pockets … and they did it, year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe,” Assistant district Attorney of the V. S. Keith Edelman said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.
Some of the bribes were arranged in Miami, in the spring of 2014, when international soccer officials announced that the Copa America was to the U.S. for the first time, Edelman said.
There would be a “proud moment,” the prosecutors said. “But lurking below the surface are lies, greed and corruption.”
In their openings, defense attorneys told jurors that the case against their clients was built on the testimony of shady football officials who are looking for leniency in their own criminal cases arising from the probe.
A key government witness, was an Argentine-Italian marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, got a “sweetheart deal” after “he turned, and began to tell stories,” said Silvia Pinera, a lawyer for Napout.
Marin’s lawyer, Charles Stillman, compared his client to a football player who stayed on the sidelines, while other, more powerful officials orchestrated the bribery of the plot.
“He was on the field, but not the play of the game,” Stillman said.
Marin, 85, is the former president of Brazil’s football federation; Burga, 60, is the former president of Peru’s football federation; and Napout, 59, is the former president of the South American football governing body CONMEBOL and of Paraguay football federation.
Prosecutors say Napout and Burga were under a block of powerful football officers for the CONMEBOL known as the “gang of six” when Burzaco was to pay the group an annual six-figure bribes in exchange for getting the organization to the granting of the broadcasting rights for the Copa Libertadores to Burzaco the company.
Separately, prosecutors said in court filings, the unnamed co-conspirators were shelling out about $1 million per year in bribes to Marin of the company to compete for the sponsorship of the Copa do Brasil tournament from 2013 to 2022.
The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.