The trial of three former South American soccer officials accused of corruption began on Monday, as prosecutors began to lay out their alleged role in a $200m scandal that has shaken the global sport with dozens of arrests around the globe.
Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout have pleaded not guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.
Their lawyers insist they were merely bystanders, swept up by the American government in its overzealous quest to clean up a tainted sport.
They are the first defendants to go on trial since seven soccer officials were arrested at Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich in May 2015, exposing what investigators say was a quarter of a century of corruption.
Since then 42 people have been charged, 23 have pleaded guilty and Fifa, the sport’s global governing body, has lurched from one ugly scandal to the next.
In his opening statement, Keith Edelman, US assistant attorney, described the scene at another luxury hotel a year earlier, when officials arrived from across North and South America for an important milestone.
They were at the St Regis Hotel in Florida to launch the 2016 centenary edition of the Copa America, which would be staged in the US for the first time.
‘By all appearances it’s a proud moment in the history of the game. There are drinks, press conferences but lurking under the surface are lies, greed, corruption,’ he said.
‘That’s because some of those… officials had other reasons to celebrate.’
He pointed each of the three men in turn before adding: ‘These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets with money from TV and marketing rights that should have benefited the sport in general, and did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe.’
In essence, he said, the defendants used shell companies, offshore accounts and bagmen to hide their dealings.
The evidence against them includes ledgers kept by executives who made the payments and records of wire transfers.
The case is being heard at Brooklyn’s federal court amid tight security. The 12-person jury was sworn in anonymously – a measure usually reserved for terrorism or mafia cases – after prosecutors reported attempts at witness intimidation.
The government plans to call three co-operating witnesses who will give evidence in return for lighter sentences.
On its first morning the public gallery was overflowing with journalists and other lawyers keen to hear more revelations from the mammoth investigation as well as relatives of the defendants.
The case is the first to go to trial since the scandal emerged more than two years ago. Since then, the sport has had to confront allegations of widespread corruption and Sepp Blatter, Fifa president for 17 years, was ousted along with dozens of other officials.
However, court documents suggest that previous attempts at reform simply gave more people a chance to get rich.
‘Rather than repair the harm done to the sport and its institutions, however, these conspirators engaged in the same unlawful practices that had enriched their predecessors,’ says the indictment.
Marin, 85, is the most high-profile of the defendants. He was president of Brazil’s Football Confederation, the sport’s governing body in one of its most important and lucrative markets.
Prosecutors say they caught him negotiating a bribe during hours of recorded conversation.
‘It’s about time to… have it coming our way,’ he said.
Charles Tillman, defence counsel for Marin, said his client was only ever an interim president of the Brazilian national federation, selected because he was the oldest vice president when the incumbent stepped aside. He compared him with a player on the sidelines while others took care of business.
‘Marin was often aside, not participating in what was occurring,’ he said.
‘He was on the field but not playing the game.’
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.
The three defence teams also said the prosecution was relying on the testimony of witnesses who were testifying in order to win lighter sentences for their own role in the conspiracy.
Bruce Udolf, for Burga, said: ‘The people that the government have laid down with are some of the most despicable, corrupt people on earth.’