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Breaking Down the Guilty Verdicts in FIFA Corruption Trial

Everything you need to know about the trial that's revealed an estimated $17 million in bribes received by two former FIFA officials.

In a decisive victory for the U.S. Department of Justice’s multiyear and multinational case against FIFA corruption, a New York jury on Friday returned convictions against the former presidents of Brazil and Paraguay’s soccer federations.

Jose Maria Marin, 85, and Juan Ángel Napout, 59, faced charges for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering in connection to several major soccer tournaments, including the Copa Libertadores tournament and the Copa América tournament. The jury convicted them on nine of the 12 counts they collectively faced. The jury has not yet reached a verdict on a third defendant, former Peru soccer federation president Manuel Burga. Jurors will continue to deliberate next week on the 60-year-old Burga. None of the three defendants chose to testify in the trial, which began five weeks ago in the Brooklyn courtroom of U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen.

Understanding the core criminal acts and resulting harm

The government’s case against Marin and Napout was relatively straightforward: they were accused of receiving bribes and kickbacks worth millions of dollars to sway which entities acquired media rights associated with major FIFA tournaments.

The two men were also accused of soliciting and receiving unlawful payments as part of a broader conspiracy to influence which countries and cities would be awarded the opportunity to host the World Cup and other lucrative tournaments. Marin and Napout, prosecutors charged, routinely partook in “the solicitation, offer, acceptance, payment, and receipt of undisclosed and illegal payments, bribes, and kickbacks.” Through such bribes, the U.S. government estimates, Marin received about $6.5 million while Napout took in about $10.5 million.

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For many years, Marin and Napout wielded sizable influence in FIFA and in other corners of the soccer world. Marin, for instance, served on various FIFA standing committees that impacted which entities received benefits worth millions of dollars. Jurors believed the men took bribes as part of their official capacities. The core element of such a bribe is quid pro quo, which is Latin for “something for something.” Marin and Napout were found to have solicited money for their own personal interests. In return, they steered official FIFA actions to favor those who had paid them. Taking these bribes, therefore, caused Marin and Napout to breach their fiduciary duties to FIFA and to the other soccer organizations they represented in official capacities.

Both Marin and Napout had direct ties to the U.S. at the time they were indicted in 2015. Marin owned a home in New York while Napout had one in Florida. Nonetheless, much of their fraud occurred while outside of the U.S. Still, Marin and Napout became vulnerable to U.S. prosecution by the manner in which money associated to them changed hands. U.S. banks and related financial institutions facilitated “under the table” transactions tied to the two men (and to many other FIFA defendants). Once a person’s money flows through the U.S. banking system, that person has availed himself or herself of U.S. banking protections. Concurrently, that person becomes susceptible to U.S. criminal charges if U.S. banks are used to advance a criminal plot.

To that end, the prosecution’s case rested on convincing jurors that Marin and Napout were part of a so-called “conspiracy.” In criminal law, a conspiracy refers to an agreement or partnership between two or more persons to accomplish some unlawful purpose. Marin and Napout were accused of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law most famously used to prosecute members of the mafia. Marin and Napout colluded to take bribes and kickbacks not through a mafia family but through their lofty positions with, and influence over, FIFA and its constituent continental confederations. Affiliated regional federations, national member associations and sports marketing companies were also impacted—in some cases favorably and in other cases unfavorably—by the conspiracy.

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By scheming to enrich themselves, Marin and Napout deprived national teams, youth leagues and other soccer organizations that rely heavily on FIFA money. Further, like other FIFA officials charged with U.S. crimes, Marin and Napout’s misconduct badly damaged FIFA’s reputation. To wit: when soccer fans discuss which city will be awarded the World Cup, there is now instant skepticism as to the legitimacy of the process used to select a city.

Critical role played by witnesses in the trial and an unconvincing defense

To help convince jurors of Marin and Napout’s guilt, prosecutors relied on 28 witnesses. Alejandro Burzaco may have been most critical among them. The former CEO of the Argentinian sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias S.A., Burzaco was one of the original 14 defendants charged in 2014 for various roles in a 24-year FIFA conspiracy that led to over $150 million in bribes. Years ago, Burzaco had arranged for bribes so that his company and other companies would receive media rights for soccer tournaments. He also facilitated a bribe that allegedly helped Qatar win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Last year, Burzaco—like a number of FIFA defendants—pleaded guilty to crimes. He is now cooperating with the Justice Department in hopes that he will receive a lighter punishment. As part of the cooperation, Burzaco must testify against persons with whom he once worked. Two of those persons are Marin and Napout.

As evidenced by the verdict, jurors were not persuaded by defenses offered by attorneys for Marin and Napout. The defense highlighted the lack of paper trail connecting Marin and Napout to dubious financial transactions. The defense also observed that cooperating witnesses are not always believable. This is a common strategy in cases involving cooperating witnesses. Indeed, defense attorneys frequently contend that cooperating witnesses are inclined to make themselves seem as useful as possible to prosecutors in hopes that the more they say to convict others, the greater reward. This incentive can sometimes lead cooperating witnesses to exaggerate or outright lie. Yet if jurors find cooperating witnesses believable, they can prove extremely influential: they often have first-hand knowledge of unlawful conduct. It appears that Burzaco was sufficiently believable to the jurors.

Next steps

Moving forward, Marin and Napout can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, but an appeal would take many months, if not longer. Long before then, Marin and Napout will face a sentencing hearing where Judge Chen could sentence them to decades of prison time. This is because they have been convicted of crimes that in some cases carry maximum 20-year prison sentences. While Judge Chen is extremely unlikely to impose the maximum sentences and might impose relatively light sentences given the defendants’ lack of criminal records and advanced ages, they are still likely to face some time in prison. They will also sit in jail cells as they await the sentencing hearing since Judge Chen has denied them bail on grounds that they could be flight risks.  

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Also, as a much less significant worry for Marin and Napout compared to the prospect of living in a federal prison, FIFA on Friday signaled that it intends to seek restitution from both men. Such a worry might prove more meaningful to the defendants’ families, whose wealth could be impacted by whether Marian and Napout must reimburse FIFA for the consequences of their fraudulent acts.

All told, the legal fallout from the FIFA corruption scandal will take years to play out. This is especially true since the extradition process for the U.S. to prosecute certain defendants in federal court could take a while and, in some cases, might ultimately prove unsuccessful. Yet for now, at least, the Justice Department seems to be winning. Between Friday’s convictions and the fact that other FIFA defendants have pleaded guilty, those in soccer who commit illegal acts have good reason to be afraid of the United States Justice Department.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.