FIFA soccer corruption trial kicks off in Brooklyn

Instead of investing in stadiums and soccer leagues for women and youth, corrupt FIFA officials lined their pockets with money that could have helped expand the sport across the globe, a Brooklyn prosecutor said Tuesday.

A long-running corruption probe surrounding FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, has culminated in a trial that got underway in Brooklyn Federal Court, where TV network executives and a sports marketing company face bribery charges.

In an opening statement, prosecutors said two former 21st Century Fox executives, Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, teamed up with Buenos Aires-based Full Play Group SA to secure lucrative broadcasting rights for South America’s top club tournament, and for inside information about bidding for U.S. broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

To get the inside track, the defendants used secret ledgers and coded messages to hide illicit payments.

“This case is about the corruption of international soccer,” prosecutor Victor Zapana told jurors in opening statements. “Everyone won except the game of soccer. This system of bribes lasted for years through generations of leaders because money corrupts.”

The scandal known in some circles as FIFA Gate came to light for the first time in May 2015 in the United States, and exposed a scheme of irregular million-dollar payments by sports marketing companies to Latin American soccer leaders.

In exchange, the rights to television broadcasts and promotion in tournaments were granted.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges that include wire fraud and money laundering.

A lawyer for Full Play Group said the company was playing by the rules it was given.

Attorney Mayling Blanco said the alleged illicit payments were “expected, asked for and even demanded” by South American soccer officials.

“It’s a long-standing practice to ask for payments,” Blanco said. “They have conducted business this way for generations and generations.”

An attorney for Lopez, John Gleeson, told jurors his client was not aware of the bribes, and immediately reported them to Fox upon learning of them.

Gleeson said that after Lopez blew the whistle, his information triggered an internal investigation at Fox.

“The evidence will show he had no reason to get involved in this crime,” Gleeson said. “He did exactly what a good executive would do, what a good citizen would do. Hernan turned it over immediately and helped however he could.”

Steven McCool, a lawyer representing Martinez, focused his opening on discrediting Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentine sports marketing executive who defense lawyers say is a star witness in the case.

“[The government] built their case on the back of a bad guy,” said McCool. “Burzaco’s shifting stories…will show you that you cannot believe him.”

He defended his client’s innocence. “Carlos was a disruptive force .... Carlos Martinez took no bribe money,” he said.