Sports

FIFA Trial Could Implicate Fox, a Major Player in Soccer

The World Cup may be over, but the FIFA corruption scandal never seems to end.

Nearly eight years after a series of predawn raids exposed corruption at the highest levels of international soccer, and more than five years after the conclusion of the first trial in the Justice Department’s sprawling probe of bribery in the sport, a second trial is set to begin on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn.

Once more, the defendants stand accused of being involved in complex schemes to pay millions of dollars in exchange for the rights to matches. Once more, prosecutors are expected to focus on the same tournaments and to rely on many of the same witnesses. They will make their arguments before the same judge in the same courtroom and, they hope, they will add three more convictions to the long-running case’s already impressive ledger: to date, the government has netted 29 convictions in the case.

But after years of focusing on soccer officials and sporting bureaucrats, the new trial has the potential for a dramatic twist: revelations about the involvement of one of FIFA’s most important media partners, Fox Corporation, in a secretive scheme to pay millions of dollars in bribes to enhance its position in international soccer — and to seize the sport’s biggest broadcasting prize, the rights to the World Cup itself, from a rival network.

Fox itself is not on trial. But the fact that two of its former executives have been accused of orchestrating bribes, hiding payments and trafficking in insider information could damage the reputation of the $17 billion media giant. It could also breathe fresh relevance into a corruption investigation that once captured worldwide attention but which long ago faded from the news.

Since the conclusion of the last trial, FIFA, soccer’s governing body, which is based in Zurich, has managed to stage two World Cups — in Russia in 2018 and Qatar last year — and bank record revenue, all while casting itself as the victim of its own corruption. It has been a successful strategy: Last summer, the Justice Department returned $92 million of the money it had recovered in the case to FIFA and its federations, part of a plan to award the soccer bodies more than $200 million in restitution overall.

Gianni Infantino, the current FIFA president, has repeatedly made the claim that the organization he leads is now free of corruption. But the case, at least in the view of the Justice Department, is far from over.

In the trial that begins this week, Hernán López, the former chief executive of Fox International Channels, and Carlos Martínez, who served as president of the subsidiary’s Latin American operations, face wire fraud and money laundering charges. Prosecutors have accused them of running a scheme to pay bribes to “advance the interests of Fox” and help the company secure television broadcast rights to both the popular Copa Libertadores, the South American club championship, and the World Cup. If found guilty, López and Martínez face up to 20 years in prison.

A third defendant in the trial, the Argentine sports marketing firm Full Play Group SA, faces a laundry list of charges for what prosecutors described as years of bribe-paying to win rights to tournaments. If convicted, it could join a short and ignominious list of corporations found guilty of felonies in the United States, among them banks, energy companies and the Trump Organization.

Lawyers for all three defendants declined to discuss the case, as did a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York. But new convictions in federal court could help prosecutors justify the millions of dollars spent on an investigation that began in secret more than a dozen years ago and long ago more than proved its point: that global soccer has a profound corruption problem and — critically — that almost nothing is outside the reach of American justice.

FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, has claimed his organization is free of corruption, but a trial in the United States could bring new revelations.Credit…Martin Meissner/Associated Press

The trial in Brooklyn, which is expected to last four to six weeks, largely concerns activities in South America. According to the March 2020 indictment, López, who holds American and Argentine citizenship, and Martínez, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, helped pay and conceal “annual bribe and kickback payments” to at least 14 soccer officials to secure television rights to two lucrative annual club championships, the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana.

Prosecutors also contend that López and Martínez used relationships forged through bribes to obtain “confidential information” from a top FIFA executive from Argentina that helped the company secure the American broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Rights to the event had been held by ESPN since the 1994 edition of the tournament, but in 2011, Fox announced it had snatched them away. Four years later, FIFA announced it had also awarded Fox rights to the incredibly lucrative 2026 World Cup, to be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, without so much as giving ESPN a chance to bid.

The allegations involving Fox appear to match 2017 trial testimony given by Alejandro Burzaco, the former chief executive of the Argentine sports marketing firm Torneos, who pleaded guilty in the case and has been cooperating with the government.

As the prosecution’s star witness, he claimed López and Martínez helped cover up $3.7 million in bribes by using a phony contract with a firm partially owned by Fox.

Fox has denied any knowledge of any bribes, saying at the time that “any suggestion that Fox Sports knew of or approved of any bribes is emphatically false.” López and Martínez have emphatically denied the charges against them in court filings, claiming that any bribes would have been paid by Burzaco.

López left Fox in January 2016, seven months after the first indictment in the FIFA case, and subsequently founded the podcasting company Wondery, which he sold to Amazon for a reported $300 million nine months after he was indicted in the soccer case.

Both his fate, and that of Martínez, may depend heavily on new testimony from Burzaco, who is once again expected to be the government’s chief witness — and, potentially, the source of any major revelations.

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