Skip to main content

FIFA trial set to begin in N.Y. with the trappings of a mob case

November 13, 2017 11:57 am Updated: November 13, 2017 11:58 am

With witnesses threatened, documents destroyed and jurors cloaked in anonymity, the trial beginning Monday in a New York courtroom has the trappings of a grisly organized-crime prosecution. It won't be. It's a corruption case against three former members of international soccer's governing body.

But the trial won't lack for drama. The testimony is likely to lift the veil on a global racketeering and bribery plot that ran for more than two decades at FIFA's highest levels.

The case is the first to go to trial in an international crackdown on FIFA that began with a predawn police raid at a luxury Zurich hotel in May 2015. As the probe widened, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, president for 17 years, and other FIFA officials were ousted and the sport was forced to confront allegations that executives pocketed more than $150 million in payoffs in return for media broadcasting rights.

In all, 42 people and entities have been charged (although not Blatter) and about two dozen have pleaded guilty. On trial are Jose Maria Marin, 85, the former head of Brazil's federation and once on FIFA's organizing committee for the Olympics; Juan Angel Napout, 59, a Paraguayan and former FIFA official who was president of South American soccer's governing body; and Manuel Burga 60, a Peruvian soccer official and former member of FIFA's development committee. They deny wrongdoing.

FIFA's World Cup is the globe's most-watched sporting event and generates billions of dollars in sponsorship and broadcasting rights. The case against Marin, Napout and Burga will further expose the seamier side of the sport.

The U.S says the three got bribes and kickbacks from sports-media and marketing firms tied to matches, including World Cup qualifying events, in at least five South American countries. The trio then used U.S. financial institutions to funnel millions of dollars to secret offshore accounts, prosecutors allege.

The U.S. plans to call at least three witnesses who are cooperating with the government -- including two former sports marketing employees and one ex-soccer official -- to describe the alleged crimes.

The case has evoked comparisons to some of the celebrated organized crime trials that are lore in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, New York.

Prosecutors haven't disclosed the names of their cooperators because of attempts, they say, to intimidate witnesses. Papers were shredded, computer servers erased and one defendant ordered the removal of electronic devices from his office after he was arrested, prosecutors claim.

U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen said jurors will be anonymous and driven to and from court under guard, in part because of government concerns over the press coverage in Latin America. Even more unusual was a Nov. 6 discussion Chen had with lawyers on how to handle "four sensitive names" that may emerge at the trial.

Chen allowed a list of the names to be shown to potential jurors, but they haven't yet been made public.

Bruce Udolf, a lawyer for Burga, and Charles Stillman, Marin's attorney, declined to comment. Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, Napout's lawyer, said her client was eager to go to trial and "very optimistic" about the outcome.

During jury selection last week, demonstrators stood outside the courthouse doors holding up a banner declaring, "Help Us To Arrest Corrupt Brazilians." One woman chosen as a juror told Chen that a demonstrator said soccer fans worldwide consider what emerges at the trial to be "very important," adding, "Internationally, it's huge."