The federal trial of three South American FIFA officials began in Brooklyn, New York on Monday, as U.S. prosecutors make the case that the former leaders in soccer's top governing body are guilty of corruption.
Juan Ángel Napout of Paraguay, José Maria Marin of Brazil, and Manuel Burga of Peru—all former heads of their respective countries’ soccer federations—are mounting a defense against charges of conspiring to commit financial crimes including racketeering and money laundering, BuzzFeed reports. The charges are connected to bribes that prosecutors say the defendants negotiated while they held executive positions, but one defendant’s attorney argued that they stem from an American vendetta against soccer.
"This case is not about FIFA," Napout’s attorney Silvia Piñera-Vazquez said. "What this case is about is that the government decided that everyone in the sport is guilty."
Federal prosecutor Keith Edelman accused officials of "[lining] their own pockets with money that should have gone to benefit the game instead of themselves." Napout, Marin, and Burga are the only defendants in the case that didn't plead guilty once the U.S. extradited them.
Brazilian José Hawilla and Argentine Alejandro Burzaco pleaded guilty to paying bribes to the defendants, making them key witnesses in the prosecution’s case. Prosecutors have also obtained about 20 other guilty pleas.
Attorneys for the defense are expected to argue that these witnesses are cooperating to avoid prison sentences as long as 60 years.
"The witnesses they call are probably some of the most corrupt people on earth," Burga’s attorney Bruce Udolf said. "People can get pretty darn creative under those circumstances."
The investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has entailed extradition of Marin and Napout from Switzerland, and Burga from Peru. U.S. soccer official Chuck Blazer secretly cooperated with the investigation for years, helping to compile 200 hours of recordings that can be used as evidence.
Marin "received millions of dollars in bribes at a bank account here in New York," Edelman said. Recordings appear to corroborate prosecutors’ case against him.
"It’s about time to have it coming our way," Marin told a bribe-paying cooperator in 2014.
Marin’s attorney Charles Stillman argued that his client was innocent of corruption that occurred while he was president of the Brazilian soccer federation, blaming the organization's vice president.
"[Marin] was on the field but not playing the game," Stillman said.
Napout’s lawyers argue that the government was able to find no irregularities in his bank records, but prosecutors maintain he demanded to be paid in cash. Prosecutors also allege that Burga negotiated bribes but didn’t take the money in order to avoid trouble with Peruvian money-laundering investigators.