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First US trial opens in Fifa corruption probe

Eyewitness News logo Eyewitness News 2017-11-14 Reuters
Former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout (C) of Paraguay arrives November 13, 2017 at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York. © AFP Former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout (C) of Paraguay arrives November 13, 2017 at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York.

NEW YORK - Lawyers defending three former soccer officials at trial on US corruption charges strove to distance their clients from a scandal that has engulfed the sport as they delivered opening statements to jurors on Monday.

Juan Ángel Napout, formerly president of the South American soccer governing body Conmebol and Paraguay’s soccer federation, Manuel Burga, former president of Peru’s soccer federation and José Maria Marin, the former president of Brazil’s soccer federation is on trial in federal court in Brooklyn.

The three men are the first to stand trial since US prosecutors unveiled a corruption case against soccer officials around the world more than two years ago. Of 42 people charged by US prosecutors in the Fifa probe, 24 have pleaded guilty and two have been sentenced so far.

The logo of FIFA is seen in front of its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland September 26, 2017. © REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann The logo of FIFA is seen in front of its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland September 26, 2017. Assistant US Attorney Keith Edelman told jurors that the three men were part of a conspiracy to take bribes from sports marketing companies in exchange for lucrative marketing rights to soccer tournaments, including the Copa America and Copa Libertadores.

“The defendants cheated the sport in order to line their pockets with money that should have been spent to benefit the game, not themselves,” Edelman said. The money they pocketed could have been spent by soccer organisations to build fields, buy equipment and fund women’s teams and youth leagues, he said.

None of the lawyers for the former officials denied that there was corruption in international soccer, but all told jurors that their clients had not taken part.

“This case is not about Fifa,” said Napout’s lawyer, Silvia Pinera. “It’s about one man, Juan Angel Napout, and his fight for justice.”

Former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay arrives November 13, 2017, at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York. The FIFA corruption trial is to get underway with opening statements in New York two and a half years after US prosecutors unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world soccer. Forty-two officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million. © DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images Former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay arrives November 13, 2017, at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York. The FIFA corruption trial is to get underway with opening statements in New York two and a half years after US prosecutors unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world soccer. Forty-two officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million. Pinera told jurors that the case against Napout would rely on testimony from Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias. Burzaco, she said, “cut a sweetheart deal with the government and began telling stories” after he was indicted.

Burga’s lawyer, Bruce Udolf, also said he expected prosecutors to rely on cooperating witnesses who might be motivated to “get pretty doggone creative” to avoid prison.

Marin’s lawyer, Charles Stillman, likened corruption in international soccer to a children’s soccer game in which Marin did not participate.

“He was kind of like the youngster standing off to the side, picking up daisies and looking around while others are running full steam ahead,” Stillman said.

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