For the last two weeks Argentina has been engrossed by a corruption trial occurring thousands of kilometres away. Alejandro Burzaco has lifted the lid on the incredible web of bribery and kickbacks that greased the wheels of South American football for decades, and the results have been electric.
The former Torneos y Competencias CEO, one of the men most deeply implicated in the FIFAgate scandal that broke in 2015, has given a protracted testimony to a New York court that has been in turns shocking, in turns menacing and at times veering into the plain bizarre. But it has captivated observers, who have followed every twist and turn of the case on social media thanks largely to a wonderful coverage from Buzzfeed journalist Ken Bensinger via Twitter.
At the centre of the case are allegations that production giants TyC, with Burzaco at the forefront, paid multi-million dollar bribes to late AFA president Julio Humberto Grondona and a host of senior executives from CONMEBOL and other South
American football federations to ensure the rights to broadcast Copa América tournaments. Burzaco, who was apprehended in a castle in Italy and extradited to the US on charges which include bribery and racketeering, pleaded guilty and turned witness in exchange for a lighter sentence.
One of the more curious snippets of information to have emerged from the testimony are the nicknames allegedly given to those involved to hide identities. Grondona, for example, was dubbed the ‘Pope’, while other federation chiefs – according to the words of former Full Play executive Santiago Peña, another witness – were given the names of car manufacturers: Paraguay’s ex-CONMEBOL head Juan Ángel Napout was known as ‘Honda,’ Chile’s Sergio Jadue ‘KIA,’ Grondona’s right-hand man José Luis Meiszner ‘Peugeot.’ In that way illicit payments to those implicated were allegedly concealed on the balance books.
Peru’s Manuel Burga, meanwhile, provided a moment that proved sinister and borderline ridiculous in equal measure. Burzaco at one point was left in tears on the witness stand after the defendant appeared to make a throat-slitting motion from his seat in the courthouse; his lawyer later contended that he was merely scratching his neck. The same man was accused of letting his tongue slip after a few glasses of wine: “he used to drink too much,” recalled Burzaco, “and when he did he was less careful with his words than usual.”
Burzaco, however, did not stop at fingering those at the top of South American football. Two ex-coordinators of the government-backed Fútbol para Todos programme were accused of taking US$4 million in bribes from Torneos, although it is not entirely clear under what circumstances and why payment was offered given that the advent of the new broadcasts in 2009 removed Torneos from production of Primera División games. One of that pair, Jorge Delhon, tragically threw himself under a Roca Line train in Lanús hours after hearing the testimony, leaving a short note that said simply, “I love you, I can’t believe it.”
US television giants Fox Sports were also named in Burzaco’s deposition as offering bribes to FIFA officials during the period. The group has emphatically denied the charges, stating that they had no link to a subsidiary of Fox which worked as a partner of Torneos during the period in question. So far, so damningly comprehensive. But Burzaco’s revelations nevertheless leave a few gaping holes for those prepared to look a little deeper.
The ex-CEO was careful to extricate the Clarín group from any suspicion of participating or even having prior knowledge of this immense bribery ring, a fairly shocking leap of faith given the multimedia giants’ position as partners of Torneos in several ventures including the TyC Sports channel. Why, additionally, was Fox given free rein to bid for and secure Primera División rights this year by the AFA when the outlet was already under suspicion of corruption? The position of Burzaco’s brother Eugenio, too, demands closer attention. The politician, who previously acted as head of the Metropolian Police in Mauricio Macri’s Buenos Aires mayoral administration and is now Security secretary, managed to pull together US$20 million in bail money – US$50,000 of which was loaned by another City functionary, current Modernisation minister Andy Freire – in order to secure his brother’s release from custody in the US. It has now emerged that he shared ownership alongside Alejandro of an bank account linked to an offshore shell company, which was not declared to tax authorities. If their dealings were so tightly interwoven, it is almost inconceivable to think that such a senior public servant had no knowledge of these shady activities.
It is clear that while Burzaco’s words will continue to reverberate, this is far from the end of the story that rocked football in 2015. FIFAgate has only just started to be felt, and more than a few public figures in and out of the game will be nervously waiting to see if their names emerge from the New York courthouse that has suddenly taken centre-stage.