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Former South American soccer officials face US bribery trial

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NEW YORK (AP) U.S. prosecutors say Brazilian businessman Jose Maria Marin was a soccer official on the take – and wasn’t always discreet about it.

[ MORE: Spain midfielder Isco could miss Madrid Derby ]

“It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?” Marin said while negotiating a bribe in 2014, according to hours of recordings collected by investigators.

The alleged demand for cash in exchange for steering marketing rights for major soccer tournaments to a Brazilian company will be used against Marin as he and two other former South American soccer officials become the first defendants to go to trial in a sprawling corruption investigation that has roiled FIFA, the sport’s governing body, since it was announced in 2015.

More than 40 people have pleaded guilty to participating in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes tied to the award of broadcasting and hosting rights for the World Cup and other tournaments. The case has fueled allegations of corruption in the awarding of World Cup tournaments to Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.

The U.S. trial will begin with opening statements Monday at a federal courthouse in New York City, where investigators say illegal banking transactions related to the scheme took place. At the defense table with Marin, former president of Brazil’s soccer federation, will be Manuel Burga, former president of Peru’s soccer federation and Juan �ngel Napout, ex-president of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL and of Paraguay’s soccer federation.

The men have pleaded not guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies and are free on multimillion-dollar bonds with various travel restrictions.

Defense lawyers declined requests for comment. But at pretrial hearings, they’ve characterized the government evidence as weak and misleading.

Marin secured his bail bond with an apartment he owns in Trump Tower, once also home to Chuck Blazer , the disgraced American soccer executive whose admissions of corruption helped set off the global scandal. Blazer, 72, pleaded to racketeering, conspiracy and other counts, including admitting receiving payments in a $10 million bribe to support South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup, before he died this year.

The investigation has drawn intense media coverage in South America – so intense that U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen has taken the unusual step of withholding the identity of the jurors from the public to protect them from harassment. In U.S. courts, that is a security measure more common to organized crime or terrorism cases, not financial frauds.

Documents filed by the government in advance of the trial suggest Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentinian-Italian marketing executive who has pleaded guilty in exchange for a possible sentence reduction, could emerge as a key witness.

Prosecutors say Napout, 59, and Burga, 60, were among a bloc of powerful soccer officers for CONMEBOL known as the “gang of six” when Burzaco was paying the group annual six-figure bribes in exchange for getting the organization to grant broadcasting rights for the Copa Libertadores to Burzaco’s firm.

Separately, prosecutors said in court filings, unnamed co-conspirators were shelling out about $1 million a year in bribes to Marin from the firm vying for sponsorship of the Copa do Brasil tournament from 2013 to 2022.

Prosecutors said that in 2014, Marin, who is now 85, traveled to Miami for a meeting where he told an unnamed co-conspirator it was time to pay up.

“Of course, of course, of course. That money had to be given to you,” the co-conspirator assured Marin, according to court papers quoting the recordings.

“That’s it. That’s right,” Marin said.

Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses that include an owner and employee of a sports marketing company to detail how documents were shredded and a computer server scrubbed as part of a cover-up after the charges in the case were announced.

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There also will be testimony about how Napout ordered electronic devices removed from his CONMEBOL office on the morning of his 2015 arrest in Zurich, Switzerland, prosecutors said in a court filing.

At another 2014 meeting involving Burzaco, the cooperating marketing executive, and other people where the bribery scheme was discussed, Burzaco made it clear he knew they were breaking the law and expressed his misgivings, the papers say of yet another recording.

“All can get hurt because of this subject,” he said. “All of us go to prison.”

Russian authorities fine hotels for World Cup price-gouging

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian authorities in two cities say they have issued hundreds of fines after finding many hotels were illegally hiking prices for the World Cup.

The Rospotrebnadzor consumer regulator says one Moscow hotel raised prices up to 570 percent above what is allowed by a government decree designed to prevent excessive profiteering during the tournament.

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The regulator’s Moscow branch says it issued fines totaling 5.95 million rubles ($105,000) to 198 legal entities and 181 people.

In the Ural mountain city of Yekaterinburg, where Mexico and France will each play a group game, the regulator said it fined seven hotels, some of which were charging almost three times the allowed rate for rooms.

Russian authorities have taken a hands-on approach to regulating hotel and travel costs during the tournament to prevent the negative publicity of visiting fans being charged large sums.

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.