The FIFA Trial – Week Two
American journalists following the “Fifa Trial” in New York will surely have given thanks this thanksgiving week that proceedings finished on Tuesday because it IS thanksgiving week.
The dizzying array of testified bribery has shown little sign of abating, leading some observers to wonder if there’s any money left in the sports budgets of the six implicated media companies, or how cheap pay-per-view football would be in Central and South America, if tales of the almost ritual stuffing of back pockets are remotely accurate.
Some of the alleged “schemes,” as the US Department of Justice (DoJ) politely calls these rackets, date back to 1991. And there seems little doubt that Fifa’s then-president, fearsome-looking Brazilian autocrat Joao Havelange, was aware of them, especially given the key role played in many by his then son-in-law and then-Brazilian federation chief Ricardo Teixeira.
The less fearsome-looking Swiss autocrat Sepp Blatter seamlessly replaced Havelange in 1998. And the scheming continued unhindered until (count ‘em) six days before the end of his presidency. So, as the disgraced gnomic Swiss gives rounds of interviews with almost menstrual-cycle regularity, he was certain to speak during these proceedings and to distance himself from them.
He was interviewed at the weekend by Jamil Chade of conservative Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo. “Why should my name be mentioned?” he asked, seemingly mystified by Chade’s suggestion that it might be, and insisting that “no-one can accuse me, you will not see anyone accuse me, because I’m not really involved in this.” Of course, had he been a remotely-competent president, he could “really” have got “involved” in “this” by stopping it. Had he wished.
Had everyone followed his plan to fix the 2022 World Cup vote for the United States rather than Qatar’s, then, he insisted, unaware of the crushing irony of complaining about a fix while suggesting another one, “we would not be in this chaotic situation as it is in the US with the trial.” Mas, voltando para a Rússia, levar o torneio para la é um privilégio.And he claimed that “everyone” at the trial was “trying to save their heads and accuse others,” unaware of the really crushing irony of saying that in (yet) another interview designed for precisely that purpose.
It was as certain that the sexist pig, who suggested women players wear “tighter shorts” because they are “pretty,” would be embroiled in the wave of sexual harassment cases women are emboldened enough to raise. And if United States’ keeper Hope Solo’s accusation of sexual assault at 2013’s Ballon d’Or award ceremony finally takes him down, so be it. But it is very hard to believe that he did not know or approve (tacitly or otherwise) of the corruption of so many of his immediate deputies.
Meanwhile, back in Fifa-la-la land itself, the organisation’s Ethics Committee has been busy shutting doors to empty stables, imposing life bans, from every football activity short of looking at a football, on three former national association presidents.
Two were indicted by the DoJ in May AND December 2015, for some/all of the usual rackets; ex-Nicaraguan FA chief Julio Rocha, who was also a Fifa development officer, and Rafael Esquivel, a past Venezuelan FA president and Conmebol vice-president. Indeed, Esquivel’s indictable offences so resemble those of the Brooklyn defendants that he is expected by many to make an informative appearance in the Brooklyn dock.
The third was ex-Guam FA president Richard Lai, indicted by the DoJ this April. The Fifa Ethics Committee stated that he “received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to Fifa presidential elections.” And he received further bribes before AND AFTER his 2013 appointment to Fifa’s…Audit and Compliance Committee (you couldn’t make it up, episode…oh, I’ve lost count). Without Blatter noticing.
Lai will lead the “most-appropriately-named Fifa official” competition unless or until someone bribes a future Fifa indictee (of which there will surely be plenty) to change their name to Jack, Juan or Julio Corrupt-Cock.
He is reportedly ready to spill a Heinz factory of beans about alleged corruption in Asia’s Football Confederation (AFC), to add to those already spilt. His own personal DoJ indictment referenced two co-conspirators. And “co-conspirator #2” was so readily identifiable as Fifa council member Sheikh Ahmad that the Kuwaiti resigned all his football positions on the spot.
First up this week, though, was the miracle cure of Peruvian defendant Manuel Burga’s dermatitis, which had caused him and prosecution witness Alejandro Burzaco so much distress on the third day of the trial. Burga seemed to suggest through the medium of mime, that the ideal cure for his itchy neck was to cut his own throat. And if he just happened to gesture that way when Burzaco was looking at him, then all-the-more unfortunate.
Burzaco was briefly reduced to tears by this. And future prosecution witnesses can misinterpret Burga’s medical diagnosis as a warning to them to forget their lines when they appear in the dock, should they so wish. So, his message received and understood, suddenly Burga no longer needed to be medical examined to determine whether New York’s climate had irritated his skin. And, as suddenly, Burga no longer needed to be banged up for his poor miming skills.
Burga’s lawyer, Bruce Udolf, spoke of a “great distraction,” with the air of a man who knew a message had been received and understood. Burga, meanwhile, remains under phone-and-computer-free strict supervision, although he can go to mass on his own while Udolf f***s off home for thanksgiving (the gobby Udolf doesn’t speak with the air of a catholic). And Burga has learnt his lesson: don’t make visual death threats while the cameras are on bring his dermatitis cream to court.
As daft in its own way was some of the first testimony of the week, from Santiago Pena, a former financial manager at Argentina’s Full Play Group, one of the six sports media companies named by Burzaco, who “won” marketing rights to South American World Cup qualifiers and Copa America and Copa Libertadores matches (Euro and Champions League equivalents, respectively).
If his testimony is to be believed, Pena was a smart cookie, in relation to this case at least. He kept a “secret ledger” detailing the who and HOW BLOODY MUCH?? of every bribe. And when news broke of the May 2015 indictments and arrests, Pena made sure he had that information safely stashed away so he could use it to cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid charges. It was supplied to him by Mariano Jinkis, who co-owned Full Play with his father Hugo, both of whom are in Argentina, among the indicted hiding from justice at home.
Media attention was grabbed by the use of car brands as aliases for each bribe recipient. Napout and Burga appeared as Honda and Fiat respectively. While Volkswagen, Toyota, Kia, Peugeot and, naturally, Mercedes all received free but not necessarily wanted advertising. However, defence attorneys were quick to note that prosecutors received the information after the indictments/arrests. And Napout’s lawyer, Silvia Piñera-Vazquez, asked what is fast becoming her trademark question, whether Pena had any direct evidence that her client received any of these payments. He didn’t.
Perhaps more wide-rangingly significant in the medium-to-long-term, however, were two payments not filed under a car name…unless Q2022 is an exclusive motor for filthy-rich soccer officials. These led to Pena’s testimony about Qatari businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi. The 44-year-old chairs Qatari Sports Investments (QSI), owners of moneybags Champions League contenders Paris Saint-Germain, and is CEO of four-year-old broadcaster beIN Sports, a spin-off from the Al-Jazeera Sports Network.
Al-Khelaifi made an appearance of sorts in court last week, Burzaco identifying him, merely as “Nasser” (“a curious mention” – Associated Press writer Graham Dunbar) from one of a series of photographs of soccer officials he was shown. And it wasn’t immediately clear why Al-Khelaifi was among these photos at THIS trial (United States Soccer Federation chief Suni Gulati was also in this rogues’ gallery for…some reason).
But the Swiss attorney-general’s office has been a major player in what many media outlets are now calling the “sprawling” Fifa investigation. And last month they said Al-Khelaifi was under criminal investigation for suspected bribery, of Fifa’s now-disgraced-then-secretary-general Jerome Valcke, “linked” to awarding beIN Middle Eastern and North African broadcast rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.
And Pena testified that Al-Khelaifi was secretly negotiating a QSI takeover of Full Play with the Jinkis duo. QSI had started talks on a deal for a potential 70% shareholding, for $212m. This was called the “New York Project”, as 212 was Manhattan’s area code, an off-hand way to set a price. But QSI added, poetically, that “after review, it was decided not to pursue.” Pena said this “review” occurred on good ol’ 27th May 2015. And he attracted no suspicions whatsoever by immediately deleting all connected email correspondence.
After the high-jinks of the Jinkis family (oh, come on, like I wasn’t going to play on THOSE words), another father-son combo entered the fray on Tuesday, Luis Chiriboga, Ecuador’s former FA chief, and his semi-lazily-named sprog Jose Luis.
Father was indicted in December 2015 but took a more imaginative route to avoiding extradition than he did to naming his son. In November 2016, he was sentenced in Ecuador to 10-years for money-laundering. And he is under house arrest (in a reportedly “elegant property” in Ecuador’s capital Quito) as required by Ecuadorian law because he is over 65. Son’s own money-washing wasn’t mentioned by Ecuador prosecutors, so they didn’t charge him.
Son “couldn’t say no” when Father asked him in 2008 to use his Miami Biscayne Bank account to store Full Play bribes. And when Biscayne raised metaphorical eyebrows, Pena provided two fake consultancy contracts to explain the $2.8m being laundered. Biscayne closed said account, Son said. And payments were then made to the Chase and HSBC accounts he could somehow open. But when Son saw some familiar names in the May 2015 indictments, he thought “I’m screwed” (a polite version, probably).
He arranged legal representation in case the Feds asked him to assist with their inquiries, which they did on June 15th. He ran with the consultancy lie until actually consulting Father. And his conscience won the day, co-incidentally just as he was offered immunity from prosecution. However, Son included “Fifa-Gate” in his testimony (“ever since May 27, 2015, Fifa-gate has been in my head 23 hours a day”). And he surely shouldn’t be immune from prosecution for THAT.
It wasn’t always clear which side his testimony was helping. He consulted Father on the potential “exposure” of other officials. And Father said Burga would not be as exposed as some because he saved his money “for later,” while Napout would “not be so worried” because he dealt in cash which his driver “ferried” to him. Son’s testimony was third-hand information, noted Piñera-Vazquez, so the answer to her usual question was no, he hadn’t seen Napout receive any money either.
Son succumbed to his emotions, Burzaco-style. As if he hadn’t listened to a word of Son’s testimony, Udolf asked him whether he would ever land Father in trouble to help his own situation. “I already have,” Son answered. Son was also in bits about giving evidence against Father’s colleagues, having known them and attended matches with them for years. Testifying, he testified, was the “hardest moment” of his life.
Burzaco, remember, had darker reasons for sobbing. And when media giant Televisa’s vice-president Adolfo Lagos was shot dead near Mexico City on Sunday, it was wearily assumed to be linked to their role in the Brooklyn trial. But it was soon noted that ex-banker Lagos, the CEO of Televisa’s telecommunications sector, never worked near sports. And it then emerged that his bodyguard shot him, possibly accidentally, as he tried to protect Lagos from armed robbers who were after his bicycle.
Leaving aside a telecoms executive’s need for a bodyguard, it says much for the indictees and their ilk that the connection was so readily assumed and that such an assumption still seems quite reasoned.
The case continues. The Gods help us all.