The trial began today of three senior South American football officials accused of corruption in a case prosecutors said would expose the lies and greed at the heart of Fifa, the sport’s governing body.
Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout have each pleaded not guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.
They are the first defendants to go to trial at Brooklyn’s federal court as a result of the sprawling investigation that has hollowed out the upper ranks of Fifa since seven officials were arrested at Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich in May 2015.
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. Some 23 people have already pleaded guilty.
In his opening statement, Keith Edelman, US assistant attorney, said the case against the three defendants would focus on the way TV, sponsorship and marketing rights were sold for the two South American tournaments, the Copa America and the Copa Libertadores.
He singled out an event in 2014 when officials gathered at the St Regis Hotel in Miami to launch a bold plan to expand the centenary version of the Copa America and hold it in the US.
“By all appearances it’s a proud moment in the history of the game. There are drinks, press conferences but beneath the surface are lies, greed, corruption,” he said.
“That’s because some of those… officials had other reasons to celebrate.”
He went on to explain how rather than using money generated from selling those rights to promote the sport – building pitches or developing young players – some of those present in Miami were planning to use it “to line their own pockets”.
“Three of those officials are here in this courtroom,” he said, before introducing each of the three defendants in turn.
Marin, 85, is the most high-profile of the defendants. He was president of Brazil’s Football Confederation, the sport’s governing body in one of its most important and lucrative markets.
Napout, 59, headed South America’s governing body and is a former Fifa vice president, and Burga was the most senior soccer official in Peru until 2014.
The case is being heard amid the sort of security usually reserved for mafia cases. The jury was sworn in anonymously after attempts influence the outcome of the case were reported to the judge.
Prosecutors say the defendants used shell companies, offshore accounts and bagmen to keep their dealings secret. The evidence against them includes ledgers kept by the executives who paid the bribes, records of wire transfers and the testimony of other people who have been charged.
For the first time the explosive details will be laid out in a courtroom, revealing the full extent of a scandal which has already rocked the higher reaches of the football world.
The case has fuelled concern about corruption in the way Russia and Qatar secured World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 respectively.
Sepp Blatter, president for 17 years, and other officials were ousted as the full scale of the problem emerged.
Each time Fifa dismissed officials suspected of corruption a new wave would take their place promising reform only to continue lining their pockets, reads the criminal complaint against the defendants.
“Rather than repair the harm done to the sport and its institutions, however, these conspirators engaged in the same unlawful practices that had enriched their predecessors,” it says.
Marin is accused of taking bribes from a sports marketing company in return for the rights to Copa Brasil tournaments from 2015 through 2022, and of accepting bribes for the sponsorship of the Copa Libertadores, a South American club competition.
Prosecutors say they caught him negotiating a bribe during hours of recorded conversation.
“It's about time to- to have it coming our way,” he said.