Copa America: The show must go on

Santiago, June 5 (IANS) Chile football team coach Jorge Sampaoli this week described the Copa America as a “football fiesta” that was capable of “rising above any other issue”.

It was an understandable, if futile, attempt by the Argentine to deflect attention from a sprawling corruption probe ahead of the June 11-July 4 tournament in Chile, reports Xinhua.

Truth be told, there is an inextricable link between football’s oldest continental trophy and the graft scandal that has shaken the sport’s governing body, FIFA, to its core.

Thirteen of the 14 people named in a 47-count indictment by the US Justice Department last week are from the Americas. Eight are from South America.

They are accused of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering over more than two decades. According to investigators, more than two thirds of an alleged $150 million in bribes correspond to illicit payments for Copa America media and marketing rights.

Prosecutors allege that officials from the South American football confederation (CONMEBOL) accepted $110 million in kickbacks for rights to four Copa America tournaments from 2015 to 2023.

“As charged in the indictment, the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” FBI director James Comey said in a US Department of Justice statement.

Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA. I want to commend the investigators and prosecutors around the world who have pursued this case so diligently, for so many years.”

South American football officials and business executives named in the indictment are Jose Maria Marin (Brazil), Alejandro Burzaco (Argentina), Rafael Esquivel (Venezuela), Eugenio Figueiredo (Uruguay), Hugo Jinkis (Argentina), Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay) and Jose Margulies (Brazil), also known as Jose Lazaro.

Prosecutors also said they were acting on evidence from four cooperating witnesses, including former Brazilian hot dog seller and founder of sports marketing firm Traffic, Jose Hawilla. All four have pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said attorney general Loretta Lynch.

The scandal, which last week led to the resignation of long-standing FIFA president Sepp Blatter, shows no sign of abating. And it is sure to continue long after the Copa America final on July 4.

Media reports during the week claimed that a 2016 Copa America Centenario tournament in the US would be scrapped after Lynch named the competition in her damning address to media.

But amid a dizzying volley of claims and counter-claims, the 2015 Copa America show will go on.

With a cast of stars that includes Argentina’s four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, there is hope that the football world’s attention, even if only for a few weeks, will turn to events on the pitch.

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