The FIFA Trial: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad?

by | Dec 30, 2017

“Happy but not satisfied.” When I read football comics as a 28-year-old kid, comic-strip stars such as “Cracker” Crane of Ditchfield United and “Bobby of the Blues” (from the porn-mag-sounding “Scorcher and Score”) never seemed to lose. And “happy but not satisfied” was the closest they ever got to describing crowd disaffection; itself a remarkably cossetted view for an era of scarves-on-wrists, feather-cut-sporting “football hooligans,” on-and-off the pitch, fans and players alike.

My point? Oh yes…sorry. “Happy but not satisfied” was the phrase which came to my mind, and I’m sure the minds of more important and better-informed observers, when the verdicts were announced in the “Fifa trial” at Brooklyn’s Federal courthouse in New York. And I suspect that is how the United States government (the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) feel too.

On 23rd December, former South American federation (Conmebol, “Conme”) chief (and, thus, Fifa vice-president) Juan Angel Napout was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and wire-fraud conspiracies in relation to media rights awards for the Copa Libertadores and Copa America tournaments, South America’s main club and inter-nation tournaments respectively. He was acquitted of money-laundering conspiracy connected to the same rights awards.

The second of three consecutive allegedly-crooked Brazilian federation (CBF) chiefs (former and current), Jose Maria Marin, is now crooked former CBF chief Marin, convicted of Napout’s crimes plus wire-fraud conspiracy in relation to Copa do Brasil rights and money-laundering conspiracy linked to the Copa America. The only charge he body-swerved was Copa do Brasil rights money-laundering (the magic of the [Brazilian] FA Cup, eh?).

And on Boxing Day, the sole charge against former Peru federation chief, Fifa development committee member and intermittent dermatitis sufferer Manuel Burga, racketeering conspiracy, was “not proven,” leaving him free not only to get that skin problem sorted out but also, and you can file this under “couldn’t make it up,” returning to practice…law.

Mind you, he has had years studying the “other side” of the legal business at very close quarters, via this trial and the money-laundering investigation in his native Peru, which was the prosecution’s explanation for Burga not collecting the bribes they alleged he conspired to receive. Oh…and, as he said when news of his indictment broke in December 2015, “of the four investigations by (Peru’s) Congress, three have been dismissed.” What a guy!

Napout and Marin spent Christmas behind (probably proverbial) bars, taken there with melodramatic immediacy. Plain-clothed US Marshals reportedly “burst” into court to surround the “stunned” duo, leaving time only for Napout to “hand a watch, neck-chain and belt to his wife, who sat in the gallery” before the pair were whisked away, Napout’s method of keeping his trousers up, unknown.

Presiding District Judge Pamela Chen remanded the duo in custody, as she was unable to “find clear and convincing evidence they won’t flee before sentencing,” especially given their “very significant potential sentences” which guidelines suggested were “on order of at least 10 years, by my own estimation.”

Chen also helpfully added that “I don’t think there are real reasons for appeal.” Although, almost inevitably, Napout’s trappy attorney, Silvia B. Piñera-Vazquez, was touting the prospect in front of media microphones within minutes. The convicted pair have until 22nd January to lodge such an appeal.

One can only speculate as to whether the New York jury would have convicted Burga had they known of his alleged in-court, neck-based antics, the “throat-slitting” gesture he allegedly made to the trial’s first (and “star”) witness, Argentine sports marketing executive-turned-informer Alejandro Burzaco, which left Burzaco in tears moments before proceedings were due to begin on the trial’s third day.

At first glance, to a legal layman such as myself, it seems a little curious that Burga should escape the charge of racketeering conspiracy with Napout and Marin, given Napout’s and Marin’s convictions. Even Burga’s lawyer, Bruce Udolf, “figured I’d be looking at him in a jail cell.” But, by Boxing Day, Udolf was “so happy” that he wanted “to go outside and do a couple of cartwheels,” which might have merited a retrial in itself. However, it was clear from the indictments onwards that Burga was the smallest fish of the three defendants in the Brooklyn dock.

And the US authorities’ nine convictions from a possible 13 included very arguably the two most important; the convictions against Napout and Marin, for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) conspiracy,” the charges which gave the trial a mafia tinge, given the RICO act’s past use to convict US organised crime figures. Keen trial observer, Buzzfeed news reporter Ken Bensinger, called the RICO conspiracy count “the most important from the government’s perspective” and “to a large degree the backbone of the case.”

Fifa have long denied that the Fifa Trial was a “Fifa” trial at all. On 15th March 2016, Fifa issued a “victim statement and claim for restitution,” a remarkable construct which sought to distance the organisation from the activities of many of its senior members and provided the basis for a claim of $38,224,687; $10m nicked by the repugnant Jack Warner, the late, large and largely unlamented Chuck Blazer “and their co-conspirators,” and $28, 224,687 in “salaries, bonuses, benefits and other compensation Fifa paid to the defendants.”

And in a statement issued in the immediate wake of the Napout and Marin guilty verdicts, Fifa told a disbelieving Planet Football that it was “again recognised during the trial (that) Fifa is a victim of the alleged wrongdoing that has been at issue in this trial.” They “strongly” supported and encouraged “the US authorities’ efforts to hold accountable those individuals who abused their positions and corrupted international football for their own personal benefit,” which you are free to think was Fifa’s job, especially with Napout being one of their vice-presidents.

And they concluded: “As the jury has now found a number of defendants guilty of the charged crimes, Fifa will now take all necessary steps to seek restitution and recover any losses caused by their misconduct.” Institutional brassneckery at its finest, although, as the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported, Fifa has paid “tens of millions of dollars” to “lawyers and media consultants” to hammer their point home. Expenditure which reportedly “seemed to pay off in court” as “direct references to Fifa leaders and staffers were rarely heard.”

Press coverage of the verdict has indeed portrayed Fifa as a victim of, or at least not complicit in, the bribery conspiracies. AP’s terrific report, “Fifa trial exposes bribes culture; WCup, Olympic cases loom” (carried, WITH odd headline abbreviation, by major newspapers worldwide), noted that “evidence often did not directly touch soccer games and commercial deals run from Fifa’s home in Zurich.” The BBC’s Richard Conway referenced “Fifa insiders’” claims that Fifa “was at arms-length” from a trial which “involved fraud concerning Latin American TV rights’ deals.”

In a detailed “breakdown” of the guilty verdicts, Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann suggested that “by scheming to enrich themselves, Marin and Napout deprived national teams, youth leagues and other soccer organisations that rely heavily on Fifa money,” adding that their “misconduct badly damaged Fifa’s reputation; To wit: when soccer fans discuss which city will be awarded the World Cup, there is now instant skepticism as to the legitimacy of the process used to select a city.”

To wit or to woo not, it requires some leap of imagination to pin the latter on Napout and Marin, given that such “instant skepticism” (since when has THAT been spelt with a “k”?) began when disgraced, gnomic then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter opened an envelope in Zurich in December 2010, to reveal Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts.

Reputational havoc was wrought by other alleged miscreants, such as Marin’s predecessor CBF chief, Ricardo Teixiera, Napout’s predecessor Paraguayan Conme chief Nicolas Leoz and the late Argentine anti-Semite and Fifa senior vice-president Julio Grondona, who posthumously starred in the trial’s evidence and would surely have starred in the trial itself had he lived and been extradited to the US. But, for their varied reasons, the three remain alleged miscreants.

And while the bribes in this case have commonly been considered “diverted from their intended uses to Defendants’ pockets” (the precise terminology in Fifa’s restitution claim), the case needs to be made that the relevant monies were “diverted” rather than being additional finance which the bribe-payers might have sought to recoup elsewhere (directly or indirectly through pay-per-view subscriptions, for example).

Fifa’s restitution claim was helped by, and cited, then-US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch’s December 2015 press conference suggestions that “this corruption essentially hurts (Fifa) itself” and “true victims… can get some (financial recompense).” Meanwhile, at that presser, Justice Department official Evan Norris also listed Conme and Central and North American confederation Concacaf as potential victims.

Alas, Lynch has now been replaced by Jeff Sessions, appointed by President Donald fcuking Trump, who has given no indication that he knows one end of a football from another. With US legal authorities under regular attack from President Nutjob, the investigation’s very future, let alone any restitution claim stemming from it, is uncertain. And Oliver Laughland’s suggestion in the Guardian newspaper that “the verdict will be seen as a stunning success for prosecutors” sending “shockwaves around the world of international soccer” might be pushing it.

However, the guilty verdicts will not have discouraged investigations outside the Americas. The very fact of a football figure as senior as Napout facing 10-20 years in prison will give alleged conspirators everywhere new perspectives on their chances of side-stepping justice. And the side-effects of side-issue trial evidence (hello Qatar) remain unclear.

Fifa-based cynicism still abounds, naturally. My tweeted guarded optimism about the verdicts attracted tweeted, if civil, derision. Efforts to place trial issues in “the past” are underway, to judge by retiring US soccer chief Suni Gulati’s claim to a surprisingly accepting Conway that “Fifa’s behaviour has improved dramatically and I think that will continue.” (Conway also suggested the trial showed that Fifa “must still confront major challenges if it is to become a trusted name in sport once more,” which begged the question as to when Fifa was “a trusted name in sport”).

But seasoned Fifa observers surely have cause to be “happy” with the outcome in Brooklyn. If not, yet, “satisfied.”