By Andrew Warshaw
April 7 – Football may be postponed indefinitely on the field but off it, the FIFAgate scandal has burst into new life with a fresh catalogue of explosive indictments and allegations relating to widespread bribery, notably over the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
The latest file throws the book at some of FIFA’s most powerful former officials, not least the infamous Jack Warner, but just as significantly – if not more so – for the first time cites some of the game’s most prominent deal-making sports marketing officials who, if found guilty, could spent up to 20 years in jail.
Two former senior executives at Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation have been indicted for their alleged role involving kickbacks in exchange for broadcast and marketing rights.
Hernan Lopez was former chief executive of Fox International Channels and Carlos Martinez former president of Fox Latin America. Fox held the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and both men have been charged with paying bribes to win lucrative U.S. broadcasting rights, and of wire fraud and money laundering offenses and trying to acquire “confidential bidding information”.
Both are also accused of involvement in the payment of bribes to Conmebol to secure broadcast rights to the Copa Libertadores, South America’s biggest club competition. The alleged conduct occurred before Walt Disney Co acquired most of 21st Century Fox Inc in 2019.
Eyebrows will be particularly raised at the alleged actions of Gerard Romy, former co-chief executive of Spanish media congolomerate Imagina based in Barcelona, since they involve the biggest fish of all, one-time aspirant to the FIFA presidency Jeffrey Webb.
According to the latest indictment, Romy took part in a scheme to bribe officials of the Caribbean Football Union and Central American Football Union to secure rights to World Cup qualifying matches.
In connection with the CFU scheme, the indictment sheet states, Romy and his co-conspirators agreed to pay Webb, then president of CONCACAF, a $3 million bribe in exchange for a share of a contract awarding the media and marketing rights to CFU members’ home World Cup 2018 and 2022 qualifiers.
Webb is, of course, the highest profile name in the entire FIFAgate scandal, having talked consistently about reforming FIFA when he came to power but now in disgrace after being banned for life and still awaiting sentence in the United States.
The new names on the charge sheet may not be globally recognised but wielded huge influence in their fields. “It’s shocking that the government would bring such a thin case,” said Matthew Umhofer, a lawyer for Lopez while Steven McCool, a lawyer for Martinez, said the charges against his client were “nothing more than stale fiction.”
But the prosecution side took a different stance.
“The profiteering and bribery in international soccer have been deep-seated and commonly known practices for decades,” William F. Sweeney, assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said in a statement.
“Over a period of many years, the defendants and their co-conspirators corrupted the governance and business of international soccer with bribes and kickbacks, and engaged in criminal fraudulent schemes that caused significant harm to the sport of soccer.
“Their schemes included the use of shell companies, sham consulting contracts and other concealment methods to disguise the bribes and kickback payments and make them appear legitimate.”
“These men, along with the general public, have known the FBI New York and our many law enforcement partners are investigating the illicit handshakes and backroom deals hidden in the infrastructure of soccer events, venues and marketing contracts. The first public charges date back to 2015. This should illustrate to everyone still hoping to score millions corruptly, we’re going to find you.”
United States Attorney Richard Donoghue added: “The charges unsealed today reflect this Office’s ongoing commitment to rooting out corruption at the highest levels of international soccer and at the businesses engaged in promoting and broadcasting the sport.”
“Companies and individuals alike should understand that, regardless of their wealth or power, they will be brought to justice if they use the U.S. financial system to further corrupt ends.”
World Cups that just kept giving
The latest bombshell includes specific allegations that Warner, FIFA’s longest-serving vice president until being exposed as an alleged fraudster, and other former FIFA bigwigs took bribes in connection with choosing Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively.
The US justice department alleges Warner, Concacaf president at the time of the ballot in 2010, “was promised and received” $5 million through 10 different shell companies that included entities in Anguilla, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, to vote for Russia. The indictment alleges that then Guatemala federation president Rafael Salguero was promised a $1 million bribe to also vote for Russia.
The prosecution file states that the three South American FIFA members at the time – Brazil’s Ricardo Teixeira, the late Nicolás Leoz from Paraguay and an unnamed co-conspirator believed to be the late Julio Grondona from Argentina – took bribes to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 tournament.
Leoz died last year under house arrest in his native Paraguay, having fought extradition to the US. Teixeira has been banned for life by FIFA as has Warner. Both have so far avoided extradition.
More than 40 people and entities have been charged as part of the FIFAgate scandal that dramatically began with that May 2015 hotel dawn raid in Zurich on the eve of FIFA’s annual Congress. Prosecutors have since secured at least 23 guilty pleas.
Crucially, the newly released documentation does not specify who was behind the alleged bribery involving Warner and the other one-time FIFA dignitories.
Qatar and Russia have repeatedly denied paying bribes and six years ago were both cleared of any wrongdoing by FIFA after an 18-month probe.
But while they may not be directly involved, the latest revelations will doubtless rekindle a wave of suspicion about both selected hosts and put the spotlight back on the first ever winter World Cup in 2022 for all the wrong reasons.
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