Gianni Infantino

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Into 4th week of FIFA trial, prosecutors near end of case

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As the trial detailing widespread corruption in world soccer enters a fourth week, prosecutors are close to concluding their case in a Brooklyn federal courthouse.

One sleepy juror was dismissed last week, one defendant was admonished by the judge, and the FIFA president thanked American authorities.

“They do whatever they can to help us fight corruption and bribery,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said Friday at the Kremlin ahead of the 2018 World Cup draw in Moscow.

The three men on trial, when indicted and arrested in 2015, held the positions of a FIFA vice president, the head of the 2014 World Cup organizing committee, and a member of the FIFA committee allocating tens of millions of dollars in project grants.

Still, in what is often called “the FIFA trial,” it can seem that 2022 World Cup host Qatar and Nike are under equal scrutiny.

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Here is a look at the current talking points in the trial:

ON TRIAL

Juan Angel Napout, the former president of Paraguay’s soccer federation and a FIFA vice president at the time of his arrest in December 2015.

Jose Maria Marin, the 2014 World Cup organizing head who was president of Brazil’s soccer body when arrested in Zurich in May 2015.

Manuel Burga, who was head of Peru’s soccer federation when arrested in Lima in December 2015.

All are on trial for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies and face up to 20 years in prison. The charges are linked to bribery in the award of broadcasting contracts for South American soccer competitions.

More than 40 defendants are charged in the wider case. Many have pleaded guilty to get reduced sentences.

PROSECUTION WITNESSES

Luis Bedoya was the first former elected soccer official to testify, spending Monday and Tuesday on the stand.

He was Colombia’s soccer leader and a FIFA executive committee member when pleading guilty in 2015 to racketeering and wire fraud charges. He said he accepted more than $3 million in bribes since 2007.

Bedoya said the U.S. federal government pays the apartment rent for himself and his wife, who fear returning to Colombia. His cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors lets him apply for entry into the witness protection program.

Eladio Rodriguez formerly worked for Alejandro Burzaco, the main witness in the first week, keeping track of finances and bribe payments at the Argentinian sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias.

Bribes to Marin and Marco Polo del Nero, the current president of the Brazilian Football Confederation who has been indicted, were coded “brasileiro,” according to Rodriguez. The witness forfeited more than $600,000 in his deal with prosecutors.

QATAR ALLEGATIONS

None of the defendants voted in the FIFA executive committee’s December 2010 decision to pick Russia as 2018 World Cup host and Qatar for 2022. The tiny gas-rich emirate has spent much of the past seven years denying it bought votes or acted improperly.

Still, testimony in Brooklyn court has suggested a broader Qatari plan to build influence among colleagues of FIFA voters. The three South American voters were Julio Grondona of Argentina, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, and Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil. Leoz and Teixeira have been indicted in the U.S., but not extradited. Grondona died in 2014.

Prosecution witness Bedoya, who replaced Grondona on FIFA’s ruling committee, testified he met a Qatari television representative in Madrid ahead of the 2010 Champions League final.

Bedoya said he was introduced by Mariano Jinkis, an executive of Argentinian marketing agency Full Play Group who has also been indicted but evaded extradition.

According to Bedoya, Jinkis said up to $15 million was available from Qatari interests to bribe South American officials who worked with the three voters. Bedoya said his Colombian soccer body supported the U.S. bid which lost to Qatar.

NIKE AGAIN

The sportswear company has twice been named in court over alleged willingness to engage in bribery when negotiating contracts to equip national teams. Bedoya said a Nike representative asked for a bribe during talks, but Colombia’s soccer federation later signed with Adidas.

Earlier in the trial, a former employee of Full Play said talks in 2015 to kit Chile’s national team included payments to soccer officials.

SECOND CAUTION

Burga was again in trouble for alleged behavior inside the courtroom.

In the first week, his apparent throat-slitting gesture at Burzaco led to restrictions on his access to a cellphone. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen admonished Burga for allegedly taking a paper clip and a pen from her clerk’s desk.

“No one, no party, nobody should be touching anything in this bench area,” Chen told him.

SLEEPY JUROR

On Thursday, Judge Chen dismissed one of the jurors for allegedly sleeping during testimony.

UP NEXT?

The court has yet to hear a witness from the third big South American marketing agency implicated in the case: Brazil-based Traffic.

One star cooperating witness could yet take the stand: Traffic boss Jose `Jota’ Hawilla. He pleaded guilty in December 2014 to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Hawilla agreed to forfeit $151 million and wore a wire to gather evidence against former colleagues.

Hawilla’s indictment was signed by Loretta Lynch, when she was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Lynch unsealed the FIFA case in May 2015 as Attorney General during the final 21 months of the Obama administration.

More AP FIFA coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

Infantino faces ethics complaint over FIFA leadership

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LONDON (AP) Gianni Infantino’s leadership of FIFA faced renewed criticism Wednesday when two former officials turned on the president with complaints about his conduct.

New York University law professor Joseph Weiler disclosed he has submitted an ethics complaint to FIFA about alleged undue interference by Infantino on the work of the governance panel he served until May.

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Weiler quit his FIFA role after the abrupt removal of committee chairman Miguel Maduro, who testified Wednesday to British legislators about the strong pressure applied by Infantino in an apparent attempt to influence decisions.

Maduro said he was told that banning Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko from soccer’s ruling council would be a “disaster” for the 2018 World Cup and Infantino’s presidency could be jeopardized.

But Maduro still went through with the biggest call of his tenure – blocking Mutko, who is also head of the 2018 World Cup organizing committee, from seeking re-election to the FIFA Council on grounds of political interference.

“With the exception of that case in general, the president did not try to influence our decisions,” Maduro told the sports committee at the House of Commons. “He would transit to me sometimes those decisions were not well accepted but in that case there was an attempt to influence that decision.”

It came in March just as Russia was preparing to host a World Cup warm-up tournament, where Infantino met with Mutko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“(Infantino) expressed concerns about the impact of the decision (to ban Mutko) on the World Cup,” Maduro said. “He was very clear about that.”

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura went further to Maduro.

“The secretary general made it clear to me that it was extremely problematic,” Maduro said. “More than that, she said we needed to find a solution to declare Mr. Mutko eligible because otherwise the presidency itself would be in question, the World Cup would be a disaster, that was her view, and the continued presidency of Mr. Infantino would also be in question.”

Mutko’s continued position of power within FIFA was also under scrutiny after he was directly implicated in the state-sponsored doping scandal in Russia.

Maduro said Infantino believes there is “no evidence” Mutko is involved in the Russian doping scandal.

FIFA took six hours to challenge Maduro’s allegations, without saying specifically what was inaccurate.

“For Miguel Maduro to be in regular contact with the FIFA administration, sometimes under his own initiative and in order to seek advice, was normal in the course of his work,” FIFA said in a statement. “Exchange between the administration and FIFA’s committees, which in the end all defend FIFA’s interests, are logical and even desirable, so for these exchanges to be portrayed as undue influence is factually incorrect.”

Weiler confirmed to The Associated Press by email that he had submitted the ethics complaint to FIFA about Infantino, who pledged to clean up the governing body after succeeding the disgraced Sepp Blatter in February 2015.

FIFA said the ethics committee “will not comment on ongoing proceedings nor comment on whether or not investigations are underway into alleged ethics cases.” That is despite FIFA announcing in June, in response to a spate of reports about Infantino, that “there are no open preliminary or investigation proceedings involving the FIFA president.”

The hearing at the British parliament began with committee chairman Damian Collins disclosing correspondence from FIFA blocking ousted investigator Cornel Borbely from taking questions from legislators. Samoura wrote to Collins warning that Borbely is prevented from appearing at the digital, culture, media and sport committee because he is still bound by the FIFA ethics code and Swiss civil and criminal law.

More AP coverage of FIFA at http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Report: FIFA president Infantino in hot water

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The more things at FIFA change, the more they stay the same.

According to a bombshell report from The Guardian, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was under investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee before the president disbanded the committee in May. The report states that Infantino spent around $1.16 million on his election campaign, despite declaring publicly he had only spent around $583,000 on flights around the world to meet with national FA presidents.

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The report claims Infantino was also being investigated by then committee chairman Cornel Borbely over whether he influenced the election of a new president in the Confederation of African Federations, or CAF.

FIFA rules state that presidential candidates must declare campaign expenditures publicly.

The latest bad press on FIFA follows the arrest of Spanish Football Federation president and UEFA vice president Angel Maria Villar and his son among other national and regional officials on charges of corruption and improper management.

Villar appeared in court on Thursday, and a judge denied he and his son bail.

Fresh arrest shows FIFA’s corruption turmoil far from over

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More than a year since FIFA declared the end of its corruption turmoil, the optimism has proved misguided. The latest arrest, of the man who is one heartbeat from the presidency of world soccer, demonstrated that on Tuesday.

Fresh wrongdoing, still reaching into the heart of power in FIFA, undercuts Gianni Infantino’s pledge to set the governing body on a new path to probity after the misdemeanors of the Sepp Blatter era.

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Here is a look at fresh offshoots from the corruption scandal that burst into the open when several soccer officials were arrested at a Zurich hotel:

ANGEL MARIA VILLAR

As FIFA’s senior vice president with 19 years’ experience on world soccer’s decision-making body, Angel Maria Villar is one rung down the ladder from Infantino.

Now Villar is fighting accusations of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption, and falsifying documents as part of a probe into the finances of the Spanish federation he heads.

The 67-year-old Villar was arrested in Madrid on Tuesday along with his son, whose business ventures he is accused of helping to profit from matches arranged for 2010 World Cup winner Spain.

It is not the first time the former Spain international has been embroiled in wrongdoing in his post-playing career in football politics.

Misconduct in a dual role as leader of the 2018 Spain-Portugal bid and a FIFA voter led to him being reprimanded. He was fined for a lack of cooperation with the investigation into 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding, criticized for a “tone and manner” that was “deeply disturbing.”

SHEIKH AHMAD

Until April, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait was one of the most powerful figures in sport despite lacking the commensurate public profile.

The long-time Olympic powerbroker and election “kingmaker” was forced out of his position of power in soccer in disgrace after being directly implicated in a bribery plot uncovered by American investigators. Despite denying wrongdoing, the sheikh quit the election to remain on the FIFA Council ahead of the May election.

RICHARD LAI

The claims against Sheikh Ahmad emerged in the indictment of FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai in a New York court, the latest branch of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer that was revealed in 2015.

Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials. The scheme was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes.

VITALY MUTKO

As head of the 2018 World Cup, Vitaly Mutko is central to the success of FIFA’s showpiece event and enjoys privileged access to Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is despite mounting evidence uncovered by World Anti-Doping Agency investigators of how he subverted sport through his role in the scheme to cover up doping.

As Russian deputy prime minister, Mutko was banned from re-election to the FIFA Council this year on grounds of political interference. But FIFA’s inertia on Mutko’s role in the Russian doping scandal continues to jar with Infantino’s assertion that he won’t tolerate any transgressions by people in positions of power in soccer.

More AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Infantino: “Nothing is standing in the way of using VAR” at World Cup

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If you were bothered by the use of video-assistant referees (VAR) during the just-completed 2017 Confederations Cup, you might want to take a break from international soccer next summer.

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated in no uncertain terms that the plan, as of this moment 347 days before the start of the 2018 World Cup, is for the VAR system to once again be in place in Russia. Infantino has in the past said he intends for VAR to be used at the World Cup, a stance which he reaffirmed this weekend — quotes from the Guardian:

“Nothing is standing in the way of using VARs [at the World Cup], as far as I’m concerned. So far it has been successful. We are learning, we are improving, we are continuing the tests.”

“Without the VARs, we would have had a different [Confederations Cup]. And a tournament which would have been a little less fair.”

“We need to work still on some of the details, on the communication and the speed of the decisions being taken.”

As is the case with all change of such magnitude, it’s going to take some getting used to, but the reality of the situation is increasingly clear: VAR is here to stay. Various domestic leagues around the world, including MLS, will begin using the system next month, and Infantino remains the most vocal, highest-ranking proponent of VAR to date.

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It’s the last bit from Infantino’s quote which would go a long way to swaying a majority of the holdovers who think technology shouldn’t be used to make in-game decisions. The process of reviewing and making a decision with the aid of VAR was quick, clear and accurate on so few occasions during the Confederations Cup. That feels like something that’ll be refined through repetition, but it better come quick — these next 11.5 months are going to fly by.