NEW YORK, NY - MAY 29:  Aaron Davidson, a sports marketing executive from Florida, leaves a Brooklyn court house with his lawyer after pleading not guilty on Friday to conspiracy and other charges resulting from the FIFA corruption scandal on May 29, 2015 in New York City. Since the case was announced earlier this week, Davidson is the first defendant to be arraigned in a U.S. court.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Florida businessman pleads guilty in FIFA corruption case

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NEW YORK (AP) A Florida businessman pleaded guilty in New York to conspiracy charges Thursday in a scheme to pay bribes to high-ranking soccer officials in exchange for media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments and matches.

Aaron Davidson, 45, entered the plea in Brooklyn federal court. Sentencing before U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen was set for April 24, when Davidson could face decades in prison. As part of his plea, he agreed to forfeit more than a half-million dollars.

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Davidson was arrested last year in the FIFA probe after prosecutors said soccer officials accepted $150 million in bribes over a 24-year period in exchange for rigging bids for lucrative marketing rights. Davidson ran a Miami-based marketing firm. He was arrested along with more than a dozen other people in a case prosecuted in the United States on the grounds that illegal payments used U.S. banks and those involved conducted meetings in the United States.

Prosecutors said Davidson negotiated and agreed to make bribe payments totaling more than $14 million, executing multiple criminal schemes including the agreement to pay bribes to a high-ranking official of FIFA, CONCACAF, the Caribbean Football Union and one of FIFA’s national member associations.

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The government said the bribes were paid to secure lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments and matches for his company, Traffic USA, and its business partners.

Prosecutors said those sports events included FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League, among others.

The government said its investigation continues.

Former FIFA official Makudi banned 5 years for forgery

HANGZHOU, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 27:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter and Chairman of the Committee for Women's Football Worawi Makudi talk to media at a press conference before the Women's World Cup 2007 Semi Final match between USA and Brazil at Hangzhou Dragon Stadium on September 27, 2007 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province of China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) Former FIFA executive committee member Worawi Makudi of Thailand was banned from soccer for five years on Tuesday for election forgery.

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The judging chamber of FIFA’s ethics committee said it found Makudi guilty of forgery and falsification of documents and refusing to cooperate with investigators. Makudi was also fined 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,100).

A longtime ally of former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, Makudi was a member of the tainted executive committee for 18 years until Asian federations voted him out in April 2015.

Makudi is the ninth member of the 24-man ruling panel which oversaw the bidding contests for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups who has since been banned for unethical conduct by FIFA.

Four others have been indicted or are under criminal investigation in the United States or Switzerland, though they yet to be banned by the ethics committee. Some of Makudi’s former colleagues have been both banned and indicted.

Makudi’s ethics case centered on his 2013 campaign to win re-election as president of Thailand’s soccer federation (FAT).

“Makudi made alterations to the FAT Statutes without the approval of the FAT Congress,” FIFA ethics judges said, noting that the case was opened after he was convicted of forgery by a Bangkok criminal court.

FIFA’s ethics committee previously investigated Makudi in 2011 over allegations that more than $800,000 of development money from Zurich was spent on projects built on land he owned near Bangkok.

That case was closed after FIFA accepted documents showing he donated the land to the Thai soccer body.

Makudi was also questioned by FIFA investigators over accompanying Bin Hammam on a presidential campaign visit to Trinidad in May 2011. The Qatari candidate withdrew his challenge to Sepp Blatter days before the vote, while under investigation for allegedly bribing Caribbean voters.

FIFA blocks stadium rock concerts ahead of 2018 World Cup

Luzhniki Stadium, site of the 2018 World Cup final
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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has blocked rock concerts from being staged in World Cup stadiums ahead of the 2018 tournament in Russia.

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FIFA passed a rule “to ensure that the field of play is of the highest quality, it shall not be used for a non-football event” for two months before a stadium’s first match.

FIFA’s updated World Cup regulations require “explicit prior approval” for exemptions.

Rock band AC/DC played in Marseille weeks before a European Championship match in June. France coach Didier Deschamps called the Stade Velodrome turf a “disaster” after beating Albania 2-0, blaming the concert. The turf was then re-laid and struggled to take root in heavy rain.

FIFA will also limit matches in the 12 Russian stadiums for one month prior to the tournament.

FIFA blocks Europe from hosting 2026 WCup, lifting US hopes

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 25:  A FIFA logo seen near the headquarter Home of FIFA ahead of tomorrow's Extraordinary FIFA Congress to elect a new FIFA President at Hallenstadion on February 25, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) North America became a stronger favorite to host an expanded 2026 World Cup after FIFA all but barred European bidders.

[ MORE: 40 or 48 teams a strong possibility for 2026 World Cup ]

FIFA says its ruling council agreed UEFA and Asian confederation members should not bid because Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup and Qatar in 2022.

Europe would be on standby if “none of the received bids fulfil the strict technical and financial requirements.”

That’s unlikely if the United States bids as expected, either alone or jointly with Canada and Mexico.

FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, says the decision “changed the landscape” of the 2026 contest.

FIFA favors co-hosting among regional neighbors, and a three-way bid could be popular if the tournament grows to 40 or 48 teams.

FIFA set the expansion decision for Jan. 9.

Infantino: 40 or 48 teams very possible for 2026 World Cup

BARI, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 02:  FIFA President Gianni Infantino attends FIFA First "offline" VAR test press conference at Stadio San Nicola on September 2, 2016 in Bari, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
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The FIFA World Cup field could be expanding drastically if things go according to plan for president Gianni Infantino.

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Since taking charge of soccer’s governing body in February, Infantino has remained adamant that expansion to the World Cup would be good for all involved. He hasn’t changed his stance since.

While the 2018 and 2022 editions in Russia and Qatar, respectively, will remain 32-team fields, Infantino and FIFA could have a decision to expand the 2026 tournament as soon as January.

“The feeling amongst the council is rather positive towards expansion,” said Infantino at a FIFA Council session in Zurich.

The latest proposal will be heard on Jan. 9, when the FIFA council will have four options to take into consideration.

  • Remain at 32 teams (as currently constructed)
  • Expand to 40 teams (Eight groups of five teams)
  • Expand to 40 teams (10 groups of four teams)
  • Expand to 48 teams (16 seeded teams meet 32 winners of playoff round)

Many critics have surmised that expansion to the World Cup field would dilute the tournament with teams not necessarily worthy of competing on the game’s biggest stage.

Infantino has a different feel on the matter, though.

“When a team qualifies for the tournament the whole country is in football euphoria,” Infantino said. “More youngsters want to play the game, companies want to get involved in sponsorship and the benefits to football as a whole are immense.

“In a 48-team format, the quality would be higher because the 32 teams would have a play-off. The quality would improve and not decrease in any way.”