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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.”

Manchester United draws Club America 1-1 on Mata goal

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Manchester United began Jose Mourinho’s “very bad” preseason with a drab 1-1 draw against Liga MX side Club America.

Juan Mata hit the post in the opening 20 minutes and later scored the equalizer in the 78th minute after Ander Herrera‘s header rebounded off the crossbar and right into the Spaniard’s lap. Mata then put his shot through the goalkeeper’s legs and in for the only goal for the Red Devils.

With many players receiving extra rest after participating in the 2018 World Cup, Manchester United is utilizing a bit-part roster for much of the preseason which includes five matches in the United States. Regulars Mata, Herrera, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, and Antonio Valencia were all included in the starting lineup, but they were joined by a smattering of relative unknowns.

35-year-old journeyman goalkeeper Lee Grant played the first 45 minutes between the sticks, replaced in the second half by 22-year-old Joel Peirera. 22-year-old midfielder Andreas Pereira played the full 90 minutes in midfield, while 21-year-old winger Demetri Mitchell saw his name listed among the starters along with Scott McTominay, who suffered a nasty looking head injury late in the match on an overhead kick attempt.

16-year-old Mason Greenwood got a few minutes towards the end, with Mourinho hoping to get a quick look at the club’s U-18 leading scorer. Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Alex Tuanzebe also both came off the bench to participate, as did 18-year-old former Feyenoord youth product Tahith Chong who was impressive during his second-half appearance.

While Manchester United held a slight majority in possession, Club America out-shot the Premier League giants 15-10, however the Liga MX side could only manage to put four of those on target.

Pep: Hart’s future uncertain, will play in preseason

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Joe Hart has returned to Manchester City after spending last season on loan at West Ham, and his future is very much up in the air as it stands.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was asked about Hart’s situation at the pre-match press conference prior to City’s International Champions Cup match against Borussia Dortmund. He confirmed they are shopping the English veteran. “We’re going to try and make a solution for Joe,” Guardiola told reporters, “but if not then he is with us. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen but at this moment he is with us.”

Guardiola also confirmed that Hart would play in the preseason game against Dortmund. Starting goalkeeper Ederson is not on the roster for the US preseason tour, having returned from participation in the 2018 World Cup with Brazil, although he didn’t play as he served as Alisson’s backup.

The former #1 England goalkeeper, Hart has struggled mightily in recent seasons. He last played a full Premier League season back in 2015/16, starting 35 games for Manchester City. However, he lost his place the following year and was loaned to Italian top flight club Torino. He had mixed success during his one year in Italy and was loaned out to West Ham last campaign with Ederson and Claudio Bravo entrenched at his parent club. Hart only made it half the season before losing his starting spot for the Hammers, replaced by Adrian. That saw him lose not just starting job with the England national team but his place in the squad, forcing Gareth Southgate to take a trio of inexperienced goalkeepers to the World Cup, leading to the emergence of Jordan Pickford.

West Ham returned Hart to Manchester City at the end of the season, and here he sits in limbo again. Hart has just one more year left on his contract, but according to the Manchester Evening News, wants to leave this season on a permanent deal anyway.

Tomorrow, Hart will get the opportunity – albeit a small one – to showcase himself to potential suitors. If he gets another chance to play in the ICC (Manchester City plays Liverpool and Bayern Munich before heading home to England), he will have another opportunity to plead his case.

Report: Leicester to pluck Danny Ward from Liverpool

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With the announcement of Alisson’s signing on Thursday, Liverpool has spent over $200 million this summer, but it seems they’ve already begun to trim the squad and even out the net spend by a bit.

According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds have agreed to sell 25-year-old goalkeeper Danny Ward to Leicester City, with the clubs agreeing to a $16.2 million fee. The report also states the deal includes a 20% sell-on fee, meaning Liverpool will receive 20% of any transfer fee Leicester City receives for Ward during the life of his next contract.

[ MORE: Alisson signs for Liverpool ]

Ward has spent the last six seasons with Liverpool after signing from small non-league club Wrexham in 2012 as a 19-year-old. However, he has played more games for the Welsh international team (4) than he has for Liverpool (3). Previously stuck behind Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, the arrival of Alisson meant the club needed to make room.

Leicester City already has Kasper Schmeichel firmly entrenched between the sticks. However, especially after a stellar 2018 World Cup with Denmark where he was considered among the top choices for the Golden Glove award, Schmeichel is a wanted man and 31 years old and a contract with three more years remaining, Schmeichel’s time at King Power Stadium could be limited.

The addition of Ward at the very least would allow Schmeichel some time off. The Dane was stretched thin last season as not just the Premier League starter but also used in a few cup games with only Eldin Jakupovic behind him. Now, it’s realistic that Ward could receive time in Cup competitions, leaving Schmeichel to rest up for league games.

Reports: Conte to sue Chelsea over how firing was handled

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According to reports in Italy, and backed up by those in England, Antonio Conte is planning to sue Chelsea over the way the club handled his exit this summer.

Chelsea is reportedly planning to pay Conte the rest of his salary in full, but the reports state that the Italian is unhappy how long it took the club to confirm his exit, leaving him unable to secure a job commiserate with his experience level for this coming season.

The 48-year-old is set to receive nearly $12 million as compensation for the final year of his now-terminated contract, but is looking for additional damages given the timing of his departure. Despite the writing clearly on the wall, Conte had weeks of silence from the club, before being pulled back to London to begin pre-season training with the squad for just four days before he was then let go.

Upon his release, Conte released a relatively benign statement thanking the club, the fans, the staff, and the players, but notably did not thank the board or owner Roman Abramovich.

Things between Chelsea and Conte have been testy for some time now. It was reported earlier last month – before Conte was officially let go – that Chelsea was planning to withhold payment of Conte’s remaining salary and sue the Italian for costing the club money for former striker Diego Costa. Costa told the media he received a text message from Conte while on international duty last summer that he was no longer wanted at the club. If true, the club could have argued that Conte botched the situation and cost the club a significant amount of money. However, it seems the club has – for now – decided not to pursue the lawsuit, with reports stating that Conte is set to receive his salary in full.