Whether Soccer or Football, U.S. Calls The Business a Crime

(Bloomberg) -- At a U.S. corruption trial of three former South American soccer barons, lawyers want to make sure that the case doesn’t get lost in translation.

It’s confusing enough that the trial involves a byzantine, 24-year conspiracy involving more than a dozen soccer officials around the globe accused of taking six-figure bribes for broadcast and media rights. Then there’s soccer -- a sport that claims a growing U.S. fan base but is something of an also-ran to American football, basketball and baseball.

So lawyers at the trial in Manhattan are taking pains to explain the basics of what in Brazil is called "The Beautiful Game," assuming the jurors can identify LeBron James but not Lionel Messi. The U.S. may have joined FIFA just nine years after soccer’s ruling federation founding in 1904, but it’s a fair guess few in the courtroom knew that.

"At the top, there’s an organization called FIFA based in Switzerland," Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Edelman said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn, New York. "It’s in charge of managing the game all across the world. It’s kind of like the NFL or Major League Baseball, but it’s for soccer and for the whole world."

The three former South American soccer officials on trial organized tournaments which involved the sport’s best professional teams -- "kind of like the Yankees or the Mets," said Edelman, who then compared each continent’s soccer federation to baseball’s American and National leagues.

Defense lawyers have wheeled out their own comparisons. Charles Stillman, a lawyer for former Brazilian soccer boss Jose Marin, described the World Cup as "soccer’s World Series," while Silvia Pinera, who represents ex-South American soccer federation president Juan Angel Napout, said the game was "more than a passion in South America, it’s a religion."

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The World Cup is the most-watched sporting event in the world, but it’s still has a way to go in the U.S. The 2014 Super Bowl was watched 112 million people in the U.S. -- and an estimated 167 million globally -- while the 2014 World Cup final had a U.S. audience of about 27 million (and more than 1 billion worldwide).

"Most Argentinians live soccer as one of the most important things in their lives," a government witness, former Argentine sports-marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, testified. "If their team wins, they go to work on Mondays happy and willing to make jokes. If their team loses, maybe they skip going to work. It’s like a national goal."

Napout, Marin and former Peruvian soccer boss Manuel Burga are accused of taking tens of millions of dollars in bribes from businesses eager to lock up years-long marketing and broadcasting rights for the most coveted matches. The trial, the first in sprawling U.S. corruption probe in which dozens of soccer officials and businessmen have been charged, is being held in the same courtroom where former mob boss John Gotti was convicted in 1992.

For prosecutors, explaining profiteering in soccer isn’t that different from detailing how the Mafia works.

“It’s a concept that a New York jury will comprehend," said Anthony Sabino, who teaches law at the business school of St. John’s University in New York. "They’re going to understand this sport is a business where there’s money to be made and bribery is a crime by any other name. Jurors will learn these are huge sporting events with people willing to bribe officials to gain access and reap exclusive contracts.”

With the case entering its fourth week, jurors have learned how a bribe paid in Buenos Aires using a Cayman Islands shell entity was processed in Manhattan. They heard how Latin American soccer officials jetted on private planes from Miami to London to Mauritius for meetings, banked in Switzerland and vacationed in Uruguay’s sun-drenched Punta del Este.

And they listened to dramatic accounts about the cost of cooperating with American prosecutors.

Jose Luis Chiriboga, a soccer agent who said he laundered at least $2.8 million in bribes for his father, Luis, the former president of Ecuadorean soccer, said he may have to seek refuge in the U.S.

"It’s not so easy," he said, growing emotional as he testified that he may never again see his aging father who’s serving a 10-year sentence in Quito. "This is the hardest moment of my life and this day will be with me forever."

Burzaco, who has admitted bribing at least 30 soccer officials with more than $160 million, tearfully recounted how he hasn’t returned to Buenos Aires since May 2015.

Orders had been given in Argentina to ensure he didn’t testify at the U.S. trial, “including killing me,” he said.

Even with multiple interpreters providing simultaneous translation of testimony into English, Spanish and Portuguese, there’s still been a need for some cultural clarification. U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen interrupted an Argentine witness last week to ask if there was a difference between two Buenos Aires soccer clubs whose bitter rivalry often erupts into violence.

That elicited titters from Latin American reporters in the courtroom, prompting one to later say it was like asking if the Yankees and Red Sox are the same team.

The case is U.S. v Napout, 15-cr-252, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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