Arrest of soccer bosses creates power vacuum at CONMEBOL

AP News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2015 12:00 AM
Arrest of soccer bosses creates power vacuum at CONMEBOL

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The arrest of CONMEBOL's president and the indictment of many other top regional officials by U.S. prosecutors has left South America's soccer body adrift without leadership and mired in financial trouble.

The continent that is home to powerhouses Argentina and Brazil and to some of the best players on the planet faces an uphill battle to regain its credibility and footing after sinking deep into the worst scandal in the history of world soccer.

CONMEBOL President Juan Angel Napout was arrested Thursday in a pre-dawn raid at a luxury hotel in Switzerland as part of the U.S. Justice Department's widening bribery case involving FIFA.

Napout, who is also a FIFA vice president, is opposing his extradition to the U.S. He was among 16 men indicted on corruption charges as part of the investigation by U.S. prosecutors.

Among the other South American officials indicted are Ricardo Teixeira, an ex-Brazilian federation head and former son-in-law of Joao Havelange, who was FIFA's president in 1974-98; Marco Polo del Nero, president of the Brazilian football federation; recently resigned CONMEBOL Secretary General Jose Luis Meiszner; Manuel Burga, a former Peruvian soccer federation president; and Luis Chiriboga, president of the Ecuadorean federation and a member of CONMEBOL's executive committee.

Also indicted was Carlos Chavez, CONMEBOL's former treasurer and the president of the Bolivian Football Federation. Chavez was jailed in July on charges arising from a separate investigation — that he diverted funds from a charity soccer match.

By now, most of CONMEBOL's top past and present officials are involved in the scandal. While some have been arrested, others have abruptly resigned from the national federations that make up the regional body and are collaborating with U.S. authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The absence of leadership has left CONMEBOL third vice president Wilmar Valdez as next in line to become its acting president.

"CONMEBOL is in a very urgent and complex situation," Valdez, who is also the president of the Uruguayan soccer federation, told The Associated Press. "We have to keep calm and let the hours and days pass so we can resolve these issues."

Valdez said he will travel to CONMEBOL's headquarters in Asuncion, Paraguay, in the next few days and the institution's few remaining officials will discuss its future. It's not known if he will be able to gather enough support from those left at the soccer body to confront its crisis, make payments on previously agreed contracts and keep crucial sponsors for upcoming tournaments.

During this year's Copa America, CONMEBOL said it would be forced to use a reserve fund to pay prizes and other expenses because the company that used to handle rights to the tournament had its accounts frozen as part of the U.S. corruption investigation.

In May, former CONMEBOL presidents Nicolas Leoz and Eugenio Figueredo were indicted in the U.S. They were among 14 soccer officials and business executives wanted on charges of bribery, racketeering, and money laundering. Their extradition is being sought.

The two soccer federations for the Americas "are both in serious difficulty as there are no viable leaders, and most officials that work within the organizations will be somehow associated to those arrested, so there is perhaps no 'clean' person to turn to," said Christopher Gaffney, a scholar at the University of Zurich who studies soccer and mega-events.

Last month, Sergio Jadue, president of Chile's federation, resigned and traveled to the U.S. after he refused to answer questions from the federation over his possible links to the scandal at FIFA.

Jadue declared his innocence right after the FIFA scandal broke in May even though he was not formally charged in the first U.S. indictments. Without specifying them by name, the indictments said most presidents of the 10 South American federations would receive $1.5 million in bribes from marketing company Datisa in exchange for control of the Copa America.

Jadue's exit in November came days after the resignation of the head of Colombia's federation, Luis Bedoya.

U.S. prosecutors confirmed on Thursday that Jadue and Bedoya, who have both been vice presidents of CONMEBOL, had pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. As part of their plea, Jadue agreed to forfeit all funds on deposit in his U.S. account, while Bedoya accepted doing the same with his Swiss bank account.

Chile's soccer federation was raided Thursday by the local equivalent of the FBI. Police said Jadue is being investigated for alleged money laundering and the Chilean federation is being probed for allegedly funneling its money to hire lawyers in the U.S.

"I expect that CONMEBOL will continue to do business as it always has until sponsors, fans, federations and clubs decide that they have had enough and form a new confederation," Gaffney said.

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Associated Press writers Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Leonardo Haberkorn in Montevideo, Uruguay; and Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay, contributed to this report.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao