A sprawling U.S. criminal probe into the “World Cup of fraud” within global soccer touched hard on Latin America and the Caribbean and made clear that many disgusted fans were hungering for a housecleaning.
Hardly anyone came to the defense of the busted soccer federation bosses, who came from Argentina, Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Venezuela.
And some notable soccer figures were ecstatic.
“Enough of this lying to people,” Diego Maradona, the retired Argentine soccer legend, told Radio La Red. “They have treated me like I am crazy and today the FBI revealed the truth.”
“Today soccer won and the corruption of FIFA lost,” Maradona said, referring to the body that governs world soccer, the International Federation of Association Football, by its French initials.
Among those arrested Wednesday to face criminal charges of bribes and kickbacks for soccer tournaments were two vice presidents of FIFA, Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo and Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands.
The former head of the South American soccer federation, Nicolás Leoz, also was indicted but remained free in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital.
Another indicted official, Jack Warner, 72, turned himself in late Wednesday, and Trinidad and Tobago set a $2.5 million bail. Warner was a dominant figure in both FIFA and the regional soccer federation known as CONCACAF, which includes North and Central America and the Caribbean. He denied wrongdoing.
“I have been afforded no due process and I have not even been questioned in this matter,” Warner said in a statement. “I reiterate that I am innocent of any charges. I have walked away from the politics of world football.”
Like many of the figures charged in the probe, Warner held positions of leadership for decades. He served as president of CONCACAF from 1990 to 2011, stepping down to avoid FIFA sanctions from a long range of corruption allegations, including the black market sale of tickets in 2002 and 2006 for the World Cup, the attempted bribery of Caribbean delegates to vote for FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam, the embezzlement of $15 million in FIFA funds and misappropriating $1 million in FIFA money earmarked for a reconstruction project in Haiti.
According to FIFA’s ethics panel, Warner also failed to disclose that the $25.9 million Havelange Centre for Excellence in Port of Spain, built with soccer funds, sits on land he owns.
The probe touched two sitting presidents of national soccer federations. One, Eduardo Li, presides over professional soccer in Costa Rica. Another, Rafael Esquivel, is head of the Venezuelan Soccer Federation.
Like some of his colleagues, Esquivel is not beloved in his country. A Facebook page there proclaims: “Down with Rafael Esquivel. He is the cancer of Venezuelan soccer.” It has 794 likes.
Some of those arrested are octogenarians who have governed soccer in their nations or regions for two, and even three, decades, amassing fortunes.
Figueredo, the 83-year-old who holds Uruguayan and U.S. citizenship, became a vice president of the South America soccer confederation, CONMEBOL, in 1993. In 1997, he took the reins of the Uruguay Soccer Association for nine years.
“He is accused of negotiating extensions of television rights … behind the backs of clubs,” El Observador newspaper wrote.
Leoz, the 86-year-old Paraguayan, was head of the South America soccer confederation for 27 years, stepping down only when corruption allegations mounted, including a reported demand that he be given a knighthood in exchange for supporting England’s 2018 World Cup host bid.
The U.S. indictment states that during Leoz’s tenure he and other confederation officials reaped “tens of millions of dollars in bribes” in connection with media and marketing rights to South American soccer tournaments and sponsorship rights from sportswear companies.
Leoz, the indictment says, hired a New York investment adviser “to manage a $40 million portfolio (as of 2012) of his worldwide investments.”
José María Marín, the 83-year-old former head of Brazil’s soccer federation, stepped down only April 15 but remains a FIFA official in charge of soccer for the Olympics. The U.S. indictment states Marín was in Miami in April 2014 discussing with an unnamed co-conspirator about bribery payments due him under a previous scheme related to a tournament, Copa do Brasil.
“(I)t’s about time to – to have it coming our way. True or not?” Marín asked, according to the indictment. Co-conspirator #2 agreed, stating, “Of course, of course, of course. That money had to be given to you.” Marín agreed: “That’s it, that’s right.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch described FIFA as an institution where bribery is “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted.” She said those arrested Wednesday had “corrupted the worldwide business of soccer to enrich themselves.”
Richard Weber, the Internal Revenue Service’s chief of criminal investigations, added: “This really is the ‘World Cup’ of fraud and today we are issuing FIFA a red card.”
Not all of the soccer titans are vilified in their homelands. Eduardo Li, the 56-year-old Costa Rican, was proclaimed “person of 2014” by the leading La Nacion newspaper for presiding over soccer in his country in 2014, when the national team made an unexpected run into the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil.
Costa Rican prosecutors said they would look into Li’s properties and other assets as a result of the U.S. indictment.
Summing up perhaps a regionwide sentiment, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis said he hoped the arrest would not tarnish his nation.
“I hope the name of Costa Rica is not affected,” Reuters quoted Solis as saying.