BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The FIFA corruption trial in New York illustrates the political power of soccer in Latin America, with tentacles reaching beyond the field and possibly into the office of a national president.
During testimony this week, a South American soccer and marketing official alleged a web of bribes connected to the administration of former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and the government's telecasting of professional soccer matches.
The program, known as Futbol Para Todos (Soccer For All), gave the entire country games for free. And it gave Fernandez air time — before, during and after matches — to promote her government's accomplishments and counter criticism without rebuttal.
"The equivalent would be if the United States government were to take over the televising rights for the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and NCAA and televise everything for free," said Mark Jones, who teaches Latin American politics at Rice University in Houston.
On her Facebook page on Thursday, Fernandez called a headline in daily La Nacion, which linked her to bribes in Futbol Para Todos, "fake news."
"If the cover of La Nacion were from a foreign paper, I would sue for malice and false headlines in that country and I would surely win," she wrote.
In the trial this week, prosecution witness Alejandro Burzaco — the former head of the Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias — told jurors of paying millions in bribes to Julio Grondona. Grondona was the powerful head of the Argentine Football Association for three decades until his death in 2014, and also a senior vice president of soccer's world-governing body FIFA.
Burzaco also testified about bribes paid to Jorge Delhon and Pablo Paladino in exchange for TV production rights to soccer matches. Delhon and Paladino both worked on Futbol Para Todos.
Delhon committed suicide on Tuesday in suburban Buenos Aires by throwing himself under a train hours after Burzaco implicated him. Paladino denied the accusations in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"What we see is this huge web of corruption that not only involved Julio Grondona and the Argentine Football Association, but also reached into the highest level of government," Jones said.
Fernandez's state-run coverage of Argentina soccer began in 2009. Using a populist appeal, she said at the time that all of her compatriots had the right to watch soccer on television — not just those who could pay for it. "It is not possible that only the ones that can pay can watch a match," she said, standing next to Grondona and Diego Maradona, who was coach of the national team at the time.
Fernandez said that having the games only on pay-to-view television was "kidnapping goals" from the public.
It was Grondona who tore up the existing pay-for-view agreement with local broadcasters and handed the rights to the Fernandez government.
"Futbol Para Todos could only happen with Grondona's approval because Grondona was around for so long and controlled everything," said Christopher Gaffney, author of "Temples of the Earthbound Gods," which looks at the politics of soccer in Argentina and Brazil.
The Futbol Para Todos programming ended this year with the rights now in the hands of private broadcasters Fox and Turner. The move was pushed by new Argentina President Mauricio Marci, who took over from Fernandez in 2015. Macri was once the president of Buenos Aires soccer club Boca Juniors.
Also this year, an Argentine court opened criminal proceedings against two of Fernandez's former chiefs of staff — Anibal Fernandez (no relation) and Jorge Capitanich — for allegedly taking public funds earmarked for Futbol Para Todos.
Various officials of the Argentine Football Association, including Luis Segura who took over the presidency after Grondona, also face corruption charges.
"Football (soccer) is a way to reach the masses in Latin America without having to do much," Gaffney added. "Here the government was streamlining access to this opiate, which is football."
Wade reported from Rio de Janeiro