NEW YORK – Three former South American soccer officials went on trial Monday in a scandal that's shaken the sport's governing body, with U.S. prosecutors accusing them of taking millions of dollars in bribes and defense lawyers portraying them as innocent bystanders to corruption.
Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout were the first soccer officials to be tried in the sprawling investigation of FIFA. Prosecutors accuse them of taking part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes paid by marketing firms in exchange for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for prestigious tournaments.
"These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets ... and they did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe," Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Edelman said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.
Some of the bribes were arranged in Miami in the spring of 2014, when international soccer officials announced that Copa America was coming to the U.S. for the first time, Edelman said.
It should have been a "proud moment," the prosecutors said. "But lurking under the surface are lies, greed and corruption."
In their openings, defense attorneys told jurors that the case against their clients was built on the testimony of shady soccer officials who are seeking leniency in their own criminal cases stemming from the probe.
A key government witness, Argentinian-Italian marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, got a "sweetheart deal" after he "turned himself in and began telling stories," said Silvia Pinera, an attorney for Napout.
Marin's lawyer, Charles Stillman, compared his client to a soccer player who remained on the sidelines while other, more powerful officials orchestrated the bribery plot.
"He was on the field but not playing the game," Stillman said.
Marin, 85, is the former president of Brazil's soccer federation; Burga, 60, is the former president of Peru's soccer federation; and Napout, 59, is the ex-president of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL and of Paraguay's soccer federation.
Prosecutors say Napout and Burga were among a bloc of powerful soccer officers for CONMEBOL known as the "gang of six" when Burzaco was paying the group annual six-figure bribes in exchange for getting the organization to grant broadcasting rights for the Copa Libertadores to Burzaco's firm.
Separately, prosecutors said in court filings, unnamed co-conspirators were shelling out about $1 million a year in bribes to Marin from the firm vying for sponsorship of the Copa do Brasil tournament from 2013 to 2022.
The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.