The American jury is ready to weigh the ugly side of international soccer

NEW YORK (AP) – For seven weeks in a US courtroom, federal jurors were embroiled in a corruption scandal that reached the highest levels of professional football. They must now decide the fate of two former Fox executives accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to get the rights to broadcast soccer’s biggest games, including the World Cup.

From the beginningUS prosecutors in New York described the case as nothing less than “corruption of international football” and how the executives – Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez – got involved.

“This trial has given you a unique inside look at a series of criminal conspiracies involving corruption at the highest levels of organized football and the sports broadcasting business,” Assistant US Attorney Eric Silverberg told jurors during the government’s closing arguments. .

The judge is expected to hand the case over to a jury on Monday to begin sifting through the testimony of a series of witnesses, many of whom were called by defense attorneys to rebut the testimony of the government’s main witness — a former business associate of the two broadcasters.

The fates of the two men will depend in part on the credibility of this witness, Alejandro Burzacowho has cooperated in previous football corruption investigations since he was arrested in 2015 in a related bribery case.

Defense attorneys argue that Burzaco implicated Lopez and Martinez in order to avoid prison.

William David Sarratt, who represents Lopez, said Burzaco has a “credibility problem.”

“This case rises and falls on Burzaco,” added Steven McCool, who represents Martinez. “You can’t judge another human being based on liars.”

During 11 days of testimony, Burzaco described a sport corrupted by millions of dollars in dirty money flowing through shell companies and into the hands of South American soccer officials. The secret deals help secure the rights to broadcast Latin America’s biggest annual tournament, the Copa Libertadores, and eventually helped Fox secure the rights to the sport’s most lucrative competition, the World Cup.

Burzaco, who ran an Argentine marketing firm, had already pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges. He testified in 2017 that all three South Americans on FIFA’s executive council took $1 million in bribes to support Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Burzaco has yet to be sentenced, and his critics claim he testified for the government to curry favor before the verdict.

Regardless of the outcome, the case exposed the ongoing problems of the world’s governing body, FIFA, as it works to repair its tarnished image — although most soccer fans have moved on from the scandal that exploded in 2015 when seven FIFA officials were arrested. in a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. Months later, two FIFA vice-presidents were arrested in the same hotel on suspicion of bribery.

The travails of international football soon deepened.

At least two dozen people have already pleaded guilty. In addition, two people were convicted in connection with a US-led investigation into bribery and kickbacks. Four corporate entities also pleaded guilty, and four other companies were indicted but reached deals with the government to avoid prosecution.

Another company, Full Play, a sports marketing firm based in Uruguay, was also on trial alongside Lopez and Martinez. The government accuses the company of participating in a bribery scheme.

Lopez is the former CEO of Fox International Channels and later ran a podcasting venture. Martinez was the head of the television branch for Latin America.

Until 2019, the international channels were a subsidiary of what was then known as 21st Century Fox, which was spun off as part of the sale to Disney.

Fox won the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups when it was part of the now-defunct company.

From 1994 to 2014 broadcast by rival ESPN quadrennial tournament.

Fox Corp. based in New York is not a defendant in the case. Fox denied any role in the bribery scandal, and the company said it was cooperating fully with authorities.

ESPN began broadcasting the main football sporting event before it captured the US audience. FIFA previously had to buy time to broadcast the tournament in the country.

As America’s interest in soccer grew, competition to broadcast matches intensified.

ESPN paid $100 million for the rights to broadcast the sporting event in 2010 and 2014, and sought to continue broadcasting the World Cup. But during two rounds of bidding, he failed to win those rights.

Prosecutors allege the payments allowed Lopez and Martinez to obtain confidential information from high-ranking soccer officials, including those at FIFA. That information helped Fox secure the US English language rights with an offer of $425 million. Telemundo, a division of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, has acquired U.S. Spanish-language rights for about $600 million.

The World Cup final in December, in which Argentina triumphed over France, was the most-watched soccer game in the United States, according to television audience estimates.

During their deliberations, the jury will have to consider email streams, financial records and contracts – in addition to many hours of testimony from Burzac, media executives, soccer officials and associates of Lopez and Martinez.

During the trial, there was no doubt that dirty money had been exchanged. But the defendants’ lawyers, who admitted the bribe, pointed the finger at Burzaco.

“MR. Burzaco is not on trial,” Kaitlin T. Farrell, another federal prosecutor, reminded the jury.

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