By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. government’s star witness in a big-money bribery case engulfing the world of soccer began testifying Wednesday at the trial of two former Fox executives and a marketing company accused of paying millions of dollars to rig the bidding process for broadcasting rights to two of the sport’s biggest competitions.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn is the latest development in a tangled corruption scandal that dates back nearly a decade and has ensnared more than three dozen executives and associates in the world’s most popular sport.
The witness, Alejandro Burzaco, alleges that he and former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez conspired to bribe South American soccer officials for the TV rights to the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest annual tournament and help land broadcasting rights to the sport’s most lucrative competition, the World Cup.
“The bribes fulfilled that purpose extremely well,” said Burzaco, who has acknowledged his role in the scheme.
The bribes, Burzaco said in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, helped Fox squeeze out competitors and secured the rights to tournaments for below-market costs.
The former Fox executives, Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, are charged with paying bribes and kickbacks to South American Football Confederation officials to broadcast a major regional tournament, the Copa Libertadores.
Lopez, a native of Argentina, is the former chief executive of Fox International Channels and later operated a podcasting venture. Martinez, a native of Mexico, headed the broadcaster’s Latin America affiliate.
Together, the former business partners funneled millions of dollars to soccer officials in exchange for favorable terms on broadcasting rights, Burzaco testified.
Another sports media and marketing company, Full Play Group SA, is on trial with Lopez and Martinez, but the bribery allegations against that company involve different TV rights. Full Play, incorporated in Uruguay, is accused of paying bribes for the rights to the Copa America, a quadrennial national team competition, as well as to World Cup qualifying matches.
The New York-based Fox Corporation, which sold its international channels during a restructuring in 2019, has denied any involvement in the bribery scandal and is not a defendant in the case.
So far, more than two dozen people have pleaded guilty and two people have been convicted at trial in connection with a U.S.-led investigation into tens of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks at soccer’s highest levels. Four corporate entities have also pleaded guilty, and four other companies were charged but reached agreements with the government to avoid prosecution.
The soccer world’s governing body, FIFA — the Federation Internationale de Football Association — has said it was not involved in any fraud or conspiracies and was a mere bystander as the scandal unfolded.
Nevertheless, the scandal thrust the organization under worldwide scrutiny, and it has since sought to polish its tarnished image.
As the world’s most popular sport, soccer has a huge global audience.
“Soccer is a large sport and a large business,” Burzaco said.
Last month’s World Cup final in Qatar, where Argentina prevailed over France in a dramatic title-clinching shootout, was the most-watched soccer match ever in the United States, according to television audience estimates.
During opening arguments Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Zapana told jurors that millions of dollars in bribes fed a system of clandestine, no-bid contracts that “allowed disloyal soccer executives to live a life of luxury.”
Prosecutors allege that the payoffs enabled Lopez and Martinez to allow Fox to get confidential information from high-ranking soccer officials, including those at FIFA, that allowed its $425 million bid to beat out rival ESPN and secure U.S. broadcasting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Burzaco is a former business partner of the two men and headed an Argentinian marketing firm. He has cooperated in previous soccer corruption cases after his own bribery arrest in 2015 in a bid, his critics contend, to avoid prison.
Lawyers for Lopez and Martinez have asserted that the former executives are being framed, with one defense lawyer accusing Burzaco of masterminding the bribes.
Burzaco has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges. He testified in 2017 that all three South Americans on the FIFA executive committee took million-dollar bribes to support Qatar’s bid for the recently completed 2022 World Cup.
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