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FIFA bribery trial begins with ex-officials accused by U.S. prosecutors

Three former South American football officials went on trial on Monday in a scandal that has shaken FIFA, with U.S. prosecutors accusing them of taking millions of dollars in bribes and defence lawyers portraying them as innocent bystanders to corruption.

Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout were the first football officials to be tried in the sprawling investigation of FIFA.

Prosecutors accuse them of taking part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes paid by marketing firms in exchange for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for prestigious tournaments.

"These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets ... and they did it year after year, tournament after tournament, bribe after bribe,'' assistant U.S. attorney Keith Edelman said in opening statements in a federal court in Brooklyn.

Some of the bribes were arranged in Miami in the spring of 2014, when international football officials announced that the Copa America was coming to the U.S. for the first time, Edelman said.

It should have been a "proud moment," the prosecutors said. "But lurking under the surface are lies, greed and corruption."

In their openings, defence attorneys told jurors that the case against their clients was built on the testimony of shady football officials who are seeking leniency in their own criminal cases stemming from the probe.

Jose Maria Marin has been found guilty of corruption charges in the FIFA bribery scandal.
Former Brazilian Football Confederation president Jose Maria Marin is one of three ex-South American officials on trial.

A key government witness, Argentine-Italian marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, got a "sweetheart deal" after he "turned himself in and began telling stories," said Silvia Pinera, an attorney for Napout.

Marin's lawyer, Charles Stillman, compared his client to a football player who remained on the sidelines while other, more powerful officials orchestrated the bribery plot.

"He was on the field but not playing the game,'' Stillman said.

Marin, 85, is the former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation; Burga, 60, is the former president of the Peruvian Football Federation; and Napout, 59, is the ex-president of the South American football governing body CONMEBOL and of the Paraguayan Football Association.

Prosecutors say Napout and Burga were among a bloc of powerful football officers for CONMEBOL known as the "gang of six" when Burzaco was paying the group annual six-figure bribes in exchange for getting the organisation to grant broadcasting rights for the Copa Libertadores to Burzaco's firm.

Separately, prosecutors said in court filings, unnamed co-conspirators were shelling out about $1m a year in bribes to Marin from the firm vying for sponsorship of the Copa do Brasil tournament from 2013 to 2022.

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