The Copa América is one of world soccer’s most compelling spectacles, bringing together all the talent and aggression of South America’s finest players with all the passionate colour of the continent’s supporters. But the US Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into alleged corruption in Fifa has sent shockwaves across the global game and this year’s tournament in Chile has felt the tremors.
The Copa América never lacks for attention. South America’s premier national team competition is one of the oldest soccer tournaments on the planet, combining some of the world’s most passionate and colourful supporters with much of its finest on-field talent. Held every four years, it is as keenly anticipated as any continental championship, with fans eager to find out how their team will fare after the personnel changes that invariably follow the previous year’s Fifa World Cup.
This year’s tournament, however, has added significance, with much of the build-up to Chile 2015 having been overshadowed by ongoing turmoil at the top of world soccer.
Just two weeks out from kick-off, the Copa América was plunged into the heart of one of the most astonishing corruption investigations in the history of sport when the US Department of Justice released a damning indictment detailing bribes and kickbacks paid by marketing executives seeking to secure lucrative contracts to sell the commercial rights to the tournament.
Published the day before May’s Fifa Congress in Zurich, the 164-page document alleged that José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing company based in Brazil, paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to senior South American soccer officials over a period of more than two decades.
According to the indictment, Hawilla and his accomplices used ‘sophisticated money laundering techniques’ to transfer funds in exchange for contracts, including the 1991 agreement Traffic’s Brazilian division signed with Conmebol, South America’s football authority, to obtain the exclusive worldwide commercial rights to the Copa Américas of 1993, 1995 and 1997.
That deal and all subsequent renewals, it is alleged, involved bribes, with Nicolás Leoz (below), the president of Conmebol between 1986 and 2013, receiving payments of up to seven figures each time the tournament was played up until the 2011 edition in Argentina.
Former Conmebol president Nicolás Leoz was one of 14 men named in the US indictment.
But it doesn’t end there. Around the time Leoz was replaced at the helm of Conmebol by Eugenio Figueredo in April 2013, US prosecutors allege that executives from Traffic and rival companies Full Play Group and Torneos y Competencias SA then plotted a scheme to obtain lucrative rights from Conmebol and its North, Central and Caribbean equivalent, Concacaf.
As part of the scheme the three companies formed a new firm called Datisa, through which they secured, from Conmebol, a US$317.5 million contract for the exclusive worldwide rights to the 2015, 2019 and 2023 Copa Américas, and a separate US$35 million deal with Concacaf for the media rights to the 2016 Copa América Centenario, a one-off tournament that will be held to mark the 100th anniversary of its first edition.
According to US prosecutors, in return for those contracts it was agreed that bribes totalling an astonishing US$110 million would be split between Figueredo, Concacaf president Jeffrey Webb and other senior officials, with at least US$40 million having been paid to date.
In total, 14 soccer officials and marketing executives were named in the US indictment, including Leoz, Figueredo and Webb. All three were arrested and charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering following dawn raids at Zurich’s luxury Baur au Lac hotel on 27th May. Hawilla, for his part, had already pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit over US$151 million, US$25 million of which was paid at the time of his plea last December.
Adding to the sense of disarray, in recent days Brazilian police have reportedly sought the indictment of Ricardo Teixeira – the former president of South America’s richest football federation, Brazil’s CBF – on charges including money laundering and tax evasion. His successor, José Maria Marin, was among those also arrested in Zurich.
Another senior South American soccer official who has found himself caught up in the troubling allegations that have mired the build-up to this year’s Copa América is Sergio Jadue, the president of Chile’s national football association (ANFP) who has overseen preparations for the tournament as chief of the local organising committee, CA2015.
Without identifying them by name, the US Justice Department indictment alleged that the presidents of the ten Conmebol national associations were to receive bribes from Datisa in exchange for broadcast rights to this year’s tournament. In light of that particular allegation, Jadue has been quick to deny suggestions that a US$1.5 million payment the ANFP received last year was in fact a bribe tied to Datisa’s Copa América scheme.
“I don’t even have to be worried,” Jadue, who was not directly named in the indictment, told La Tercera newspaper last month. “This [investigation] won’t affect at all the work of the federation or its president.”
Chilean soccer chief Sergio Jadue has denied any wrongdoing.
Jadue has, however, expressed disappointment at the timing of the US investigation, coming as it did just two weeks ahead of his country’s first Copa América since 1991.
“Unfortunately, instead of talking about football, we are talking about this issue,” he said. “That’s because of a particular situation of some officials who will have to answer for their actions.”
Though this year’s Copa América, the 44th edition of the tournament, will begin in earnest later this week, the bribery scandal that has rocked the soccer world could yet have profound consequences for the 2016 Copa América Centenario.
Set to be held in the United States, next year’s tournament was created in celebration of the centenary of Conmebol and the Copa América, bringing together teams from both confederations in a single tournament for the first time. Yet with Concacaf ’s Webb being held by Swiss authorities, Leoz under house arrest in his native Paraguay, and the four marketing executives named in the indictment – Aaron Davidson, the president of Traffic Sports USA Inc; Alejandro Burzaco, the controlling principal of Torneos y Competencias; and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the controlling principals at Full Play Group – being questioned in the US, Conmebol secretary general Jose Luis Meiszner has expressed doubts over the historic tournament’s viability.
“Today one has to question the possibility of playing this tournament,” Meiszner told Argentinean radio. “We have to be prepared for enormous turmoil to hold this event, given the rights holders are also being questioned.”
Though the focus, for now, will be on three weeks in Chile, the events of recent weeks have left a numbing sense of uncertainty about the future of South America’s beloved showpiece.
Chile 2015: meet the partners
Assembled by WeMatch – the trade name of Traffic Sports, Full Play and Torneos y Competencias’ Datisa enterprise – the sponsorship portfolio for this year’s Copa América comprises ten partners and is split into five categories.
At the top sit three platinum sponsors in Santander, MasterCard and Kia, with each thought to be paying around US$5 million. On the second rung there is Claro, the sole gold sponsor of the tournament, whilst DHL, Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola are a further level down as third-tier silver sponsors. Making up the portfolio are official suppliers Latam Airlines and Canon, and local sponsor AirBnB.
The latter, a web portal which allows private homeowners to rent rooms to tourists on a nightly basis, has created a dedicated hub on its website for the Copa América. Its activities in Chile come ahead of a similar sponsorship of next year’s Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
MasterCard, one of three platinum sponsors of Chile 2015, has supported the tournament's trophy tour.
Contracts with broadcasters of this year’s tournament have also been negotiated by WeMatch on behalf of Conmebol and the organisers of the tournament, CA2015.
In Chile, Canal 13 agreed to pay in the region of US$12 million when it secured the domestic TV rights to the tournament in April 2012, outbidding rival operators Mega, Chilevisión, CDF and TVN. Outside the host nation, Rede Globo, SporTV and ESPN Brasil will combine to provide coverage of all 26 matches from the tournament in Brazil, while a similar three-partner setup has been agreed in Uruguay, where Teledoce, Saeta TV and Monte Carlo have secured the rights.
Elsewhere, international TV deals have also been struck with the likes of Canal Plus in Spain, Premier Sports in the UK, India’s Sony Six in south Asia, TVP in Poland, and BeIN Sports in the US, Canada and the Middle East.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in issue seven of SoccerexPro magazine, out next week. To subscribe, please click here.