Models wearing football jerseys perform as part of promotional activities for the Copa America in Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday. (Reuters Photo/David Mercado)

Corruption Scandal in Latin America Takes Shine Off Copa America

JUNE 11, 2015

Santiago. It should be South America's showpiece football tournament. Instead the Copa America kicks off in Chile on Thursday as a widening US-led investigation lifts the lid on rampant corruption among the sport's top officials.

The probe has exposed a criminal enterprise running from racketeering and bribery to wire fraud and money laundering, and the list of suspects now facing extradition to the United States reads like a who's who of Latin America's football establishment.

On the field, stars like Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Neymar and Colombia's James Rodriguez are sure to provide enough magic to keep fans happy.

But the scandal has damaged football's reputation in a region widely seen as its spiritual home and the cradle of many of its greatest players.

"Unfortunately our Copa America is stained by these events which have little to do with football," Sergio Jadue, who heads Chile's football federation.

Four years ago, when Uruguay hosted the tournament, Nicolas Leoz ruled over South America's CONMEBOL football confederation, even securing legal immunity for the body's headquarters in Paraguay. Today, he is under house arrest in an upmarket neighborhood of Asuncion.

Eugenio Figueredo, a FIFA vice president, was Leoz's deputy in 2011. He and Rafael Esquivel, the sport's boss in Venezuela, were among seven people arrested when Swiss police swooped on a hotel in Zurich on May 27.

So too was Jose Maria Marin, Brazil's former football chief.

In a region where the long arm of US intervention is often resented, football fans from Bogota to Buenos Aires have broadly applauded the international probe.

Many, however, are more sanguine about the prospects for ridding the sport of graft.

"This scandal changes little," said Jaime Riquelme, a stamp salesman in Chile's capital Santiago, where the Copa America kicks off with a match between Chile and Ecuador on Thursday night.

"We all knew money was changing hands. It happens in all sports, baseball, soccer, basketball."

Embarrassed

South America's embarrassed football federations hope the Copa America will shift focus away from the scandal, which last week forced Sepp Blatter to announce his resignation as head of FIFA, football's governing body.

But Paraguay's Senate is likely to vote on Thursday to strip CONMEBOL's headquarters of its pseudo-diplomatic legal immunity, a protective shield that illustrates how FIFA and its affiliates have often been able to dodge justice.

If the vote goes as expected, Paraguayan police could soon be raiding the plush home of South American football in search of documents and computer files to aid the US probe.

At the center of the scandal are TV and commercial contracts for the Copa America.

Sports media and marketing executives Alejandro Burzaco, Hugo Jinkis and son Mariano Jinkis, all Argentine nationals, are accused of winning the lucrative TV rights to the 2015, 2019 and 2023 tournaments by paying up to $110 million in bribes.

Three top CONMEBOL officials, including Leoz and the chiefs of the Argentine and Brazilian national federations, were to receive a total of $45 million in kickbacks with the rest to be disbursed among eight other unnamed CONMEBOL officials, according to the indictment.

The staggering sums have stoked long-held suspicions among fans that South America's foobtall officials were lining their own pockets instead of developing the grassroots game.

As the US investigation broadens, fans and pundits are sure to scrutinize which top ranking officials travel to Chile.

"I think we'll see fewer leaders at the tournament than before because nobody wants to raise their head above the parapet," said Sergio Levinsky, an Argentine author who has written about the football business. He said the US probe has revealed "the enormous corruption and culture of impunity that had dictated decision making."

A CONMEBOL spokesman declined to comment on which federation bosses were expected to attend the Copa America.

Reuters

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