FIFA's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS
FIFA's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS

New York — It was the raid that changed the face of the world’s most popular sport. Swiss police swooped in on a five-star Zurich hotel at dawn, arresting seven soccer officials at the request of the US.

Two-and-a-half years later, the only defendants detained in the US who continue to profess their innocence will go on trial.

When US prosecutors unveiled a years’ long investigation on May 27 2015, the allegations were dumbfounding: a quarter of a century of endemic corruption in the heart of Fifa, soccer’s governing body.

A total of 42 officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200m.

It was the biggest corruption scandal in the history of soccer.

"Two generations of soccer officials," then attorney-general Loretta Lynch said at the time, "used their positions of trust within their respective organisations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments.

‘They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament," Lynch said.

Tens of millions of dollars were hidden in offshore accounts in Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, US officials said.

The charges included racketeering, wire fraud and money-laundering conspiracies.

But only three people are actually going on trial — three fabulously wealthy and once formidably powerful South American soccer officials.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday at the federal court in Brooklyn. Opening statements could begin on November 13.

It will be a hugely complicated trial, expected to last weeks if not months, with prosecutors expected to present 350,000 pages of evidence and dozens of witnesses.

The most high-profile defendant is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil’s Football Confederation — the sport’s organising body in one of the premier soccer-playing nations in the world.

Since his arrest in Zurich and extradition, he has been out on bail, living in luxury at Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue skyscraper best known for housing the penthouse and company headquarters of the incumbent US president.

Also in the dock is former Fifa vice-president Juan Angel Napout, 59, and along with him, Manuel Burga, who led soccer in Peru until 2014 and is also a one-time Fifa development committee member.

A US jury will now decide their fate. If convicted, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen. The worst counts against them carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

Of the 42 individual defendants, 24 have cut deals with prosecutors, hoping for lighter sentences in exchange for cooperating and confessing to a pared-down number of charges. Two were sentenced in October: former Guatemalan soccer official Hector Trujillo to eight months, and UK-Greek accountant Costas Takkas to 15 months, 10 of which he has served.

"In some ways, he destroyed his country," Chen said at Trujillo’s sentencing on October 25. "Soccer is the national love and a patriotic endeavour.... He should have known better."

The rest await sentencing, led by Jeffrey Webb, of the Cayman Islands, who admitted to receiving more than $6m in bribes and whose millionaire lifestyle while under house arrest — quaffing champagne, gambling and partying — has infuriated Fifa’s lawyers.

AFP

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