​The big fix: Restoring faith in the Copa América Centenario

The full story of how corruption in the Americas pushed the Copa América Centenario to the brink of collapse, leaving organisers in a race against time to repair the damage.

​The big fix: Restoring faith in the Copa América Centenario

This summer’s Copa América Centenario soccer tournament looked for all the world like a historic, once in a generation event when it was formally launched two years ago. Yet alleged corruption in the Americas pushed the tournament to the brink of collapse, leaving the event’s organisers in a race against time to repair the damage.

By Michael Long

It was the dream set-up and, like all fantasies, it might never have happened.

This summer’s Copa América Centenario was meant to be ‘the cup of the century’, a colourful celebration of soccer that would unite the Americas and bring joy to millions of fans around the world. It was to both mark and make history: a once in a lifetime tournament featuring many of the planet’s most talented stars; held to commemorate 100 years since the creation of South America’s preeminent event and the continent’s chief authority, Conmebol; played for the first time in the United States of America, soccer’s great land of opportunity and, in commercial terms, a waking giant.

Some story it would have been.

In the end, the Copa América Centenario almost went down in history with an asterisk for all the wrong reasons. Plunged into the heart of the corruption scandal that rocked world soccer a year ago, the tournament was tarnished long before it became reality; a casualty of the circumstances under which it was conceived, let down by the very game – and people – it was intended to celebrate.

The problems, though well documented now, stem back to 2012, when Conmebol first mooted its intention to stage the tournament. The confederation, then under the notorious reign of its long-standing president, the Godfather-like Nicolás Leoz, harboured what would be a bold and historic plan: to take South America’s beloved Copa América to US soil and create the largest soccer event played in the country since the 1994 Fifa World Cup. The rest, of course, is history.

In the ensuing months, as it would later transpire, executives at Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing company based in Brazil, and rival Argentinean companies Full Play Group and Torneos y Competencias SA, plotted a scheme to obtain the lucrative sponsorship and broadcast rights to an event that would surely be a guaranteed money-spinner. As part of the scheme the three companies formed a new firm called Datisa, through which they would go on to secure, 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, Conmebol’s counterpart in North and Central America and the Caribbean, for the rights to the Copa América Centenario.

Former Conmebol president Nicolás Leoz was the brains behind the Copa América Centenario.

Around that time, in April 2013, Leoz unexpectedly resigned his much-maligned presidency. His “sincere, honest” job was done, he said, but his legacy would be carried on by Eugenio Figueredo, the former head of the Uruguayan Soccer Association (AUF).

Figueredo picked up right where Leoz left off, continuing to push through preparations for the lucrative Centenario jamboree. In May 2014, at a glitzy event in Miami, Conmebol and Concacaf officially unveiled plans for the tournament. Six Concacaf teams, they declared, would compete alongside the regular ten South American participants, with the USA and Mexico – representatives of especially attractive markets, of course – granted automatic spots. The remaining four Concacaf teams would have to qualify, either through the 2015 Gold Cup, the 2014 Central American Cup or the 2014 Caribbean Cup. The competition would take place from 3rd to 26th June in major cities and stadiums across America.

Figueredo and his Concacaf counterpart, Jeffrey Webb, were all smiles and handshakes as they stood side by side at the launch event. Little wonder: the two men, along with other senior officials, including Leoz, stood to pocket bribes totalling an astonishing US$110 million, paid for by Datisa, which by now was trading under the name WeMatch. At least US$40 million was to be handed over within a year. Leoz’s ambitious plan was finally coming together.

Then, that fateful day in Zurich – the day Sepp Blatter’s embattled Fifa regime finally fell – 27th May 2015.

In the biggest bombshell ever to be dropped on world soccer, the US Department of Justice released a 160-page, 92-count indictment that publicly named a group of 14 high-ranking officials and marketing executives as co-conspirators in a massive web of corruption spanning the Americas. Figueredo and Webb, it emerged, were among them. Both were arrested and charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering following dawn raids at Zurich’s luxury Baur au Lac hotel, a favourite Fifa haunt, on the eve of the global body’s annual congress.

Like Fifa itself, the Copa América Centenario was thrust into chaos. Webb was held by Swiss authorities while the four marketing executives named in the indictment – Aaron Davidson, the president of Traffic Sports USA Inc; Alejandro Burzaco, the head of Torneos y Competencias; and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the controlling principals at Full Play Group – were being questioned elsewhere. Meanwhile Figueredo returned home to Uruguay, where he was taken into custody after a brief period in hospital, and Leoz, for his part, was put under house arrest in Paraguay.

The game, at last, was up. Centenario preparations ground to a halt.

“Today, one has to question the possibility of playing this tournament,” Conmebol’s then-secretary general Jose Luis Meiszner told Argentinian radio following the arrests. “We have to be prepared for enormous turmoil to hold this event, given the rights holders are also being questioned.”

Disgraced Concacaf president Jeffrey Webb (left) launched the Centenario alongside his Conmebol counterpart, Eugenio Figueredo, in May 2014.

With the US investigation, led by the country’s stern-talking attorney general, Loretta Lynch, unfolding before the eyes of the world, attempts to salvage the tournament saw a crisis meeting called in Mexico in September. Though they did not attend the meeting, officials at the US Soccer Federation, the host association, were seeking assurances over their contracts with their continental colleagues, wary of further arrests and their liability under any potential legal action. Datisa’s bank accounts had been frozen. As talks continued, it was touch and go whether the tournament would take place at all, the crisis at Fifa having rendered it virtually impossible to conduct any meaningful business.

While several of their concerns went unanswered, the turning point for US Soccer came when Conmebol and Concacaf finally terminated their contracts with Datisa. Both confederations were reassigned the tournament’s commercial rights – or, at least, those that had not already been attributed – before offering them out to market once again last October. The new request for proposal (RFP), not unexpectedly, garnered significant interest. A total of 12 bids were entered and in December, the rights were re-awarded – this time to IMG and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the commercial arm of Major League Soccer (MLS), whose combined proposal was reported to include a guarantee of almost US$20 million with any remaining profits split between the organisers and the agencies.

“We looked at it and said our job in this was to put our best foot forward and we felt that the combination between ourselves and IMG was pretty significant,” says Kathy Carter, the president of SUM. “We weren’t as worried about who else was bidding because you can only do what you can do, and ultimately we had to put forward what we felt was the best way to move forward with the tournament given the tight timeframes.

“To this day, I don’t know what the 11 other bids were. Obviously we’ve heard bits and pieces of folks that had put documents in but, by the same token, it didn’t really faze us so much because we said, ‘Look, if we play to our strengths, let the chips fall where they may.’”

IMG and SUM got straight to work, splitting media and sponsorship sales responsibilities respectively. One of the selection criteria upon which Conmebol and Concacaf made their decision, alongside things like ‘reputation’, ‘responsiveness’ and ‘resources’, was a ‘preparedness to move quickly to market and service the rights’. With the clock ticking towards to the tournament’s 3rd June start date, it was also announced that ESP Properties, a division of WPP, and SJX Partners, a unit of CSM Sports and Entertainment, would assist IMG and SUM specifically in their efforts to procure sponsors.

“We brought them in because we felt that, on the sponsorship side of the business, the greatest concern that we had was covering the market as quickly as would be required,” explains Carter (left).

“We had a longstanding relationship both the management at SJX and the management at ESP. ESP had a lot of tentacles, if you will, down into South America and SJX has a great rolodex in the United States. We just felt it gave us greater coverage – although, to be fair, we always knew that the majority of the business would be done by our group and by our sales folks.”

For the tournament’s organisers, the arrival of the new representatives was a significant step forward. Here were four internationally reputable companies that would be tasked with getting commercial and marketing preparations back on track while restoring trust, credibility and fresh momentum into negotiations with prospective partners.

“Quite frankly,” adds Carter, “the most important part of our bid with the organisers was one of transparency, and we felt very strongly that they should have a say in how the business was run and ultimately should have visibility not just into the sales, but also into how clients were going to activate and what we were going to do to operate the event from a marketing standpoint. And that’s something that they achieved.

“The basis of our bid was: ‘While we’re prepared to provide you some financial security, the bar won’t be too high because ultimately you need to understand what your property is worth and you need to be a part of the process.’ That was really the key tenet from our perspective.”

Progress on the commercial front, however, could do little to avert developments taking place elsewhere. When the new agencies were announced on 2nd December, organisers made a point of emphasising the thorough, open and transparent nature of the bidding process. The timing could not have been worse. Just hours later, US Soccer’s fears were confirmed when Juan Angel Napout and Alfredo Hawit, the respective acting heads of Conmebol and Concacaf and both Fifa vice presidents, were arrested in a second dawn raid in Switzerland. The same city, the same luxury hotel. Both men were subsequently suspended for 90 days by Fifa’s own ethics committee pending the ongoing investigation.

It was yet another body blow for the local organising committee. With the fog of doubt and suspicion descending once again, US Soccer released a statement insisting the event would go ahead as planned. The latest arrests, it said, in ‘no way pierce the integrity of the rigorous safeguards’ the federation had put in place to ensure the event would be ‘organised and conducted in a way that is open, transparent and above reproach’.

"The hardest thing we’ve got is the clock, and it doesn’t matter how good you are, nobody has the ability to turn back time.’”

US Soccer also sought to distance itself from Napout and Hawit, despite the pair having been personally quoted on the release confirming the selection of IMG and SUM. ‘The new executive committee that was created to govern the tournament does not include these individuals and they were never in a position to make decisions that would adversely impact those high standards,’ the federation’s statement added.

With that, preparations stumbled uneasily on. By January, Conmebol had elected its fourth president in three years. Alejandro Dominguez, a close friend of Napout – who, incidentally, had entered a not guilty plea at a court in New York in December – was unanimously backed by the confederation’s ten member associations at an extraordinary session in Luque, in his native Paraguay. He was the lone candidate after the withdrawal of Uruguay’s interim president Wilmar Vasquez.

“My biggest promise is to restore credibility to Conmebol,” insisted Dominguez, speaking after the vote was held, in a strange yet not inconceivable twist of fate, at a conference centre named after Leoz. “We want to emphasise transparency,” Dominguez reiterated. “We want to return to the essence of soccer, the values and the fair play.”   

Concacaf, meanwhile, would now be temporarily led by Ted Howard, the body’s acting deputy general secretary, a role the American had filled only since last June when the Colombian Enrique Sanz, a former Traffic Sports executive, was suspended by Fifa due to corruption charges. Hawit, like Napout, was out of the picture, facing four counts of conspiracy linked to the bribery scandal. The Honduran lawyer, who was extradited from Switzerland to the US following his arrest in December, admitted in April to accepting bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, money that was paid into bank accounts he and his family controlled in Panama and Honduras. The 64-year-old remains on bail and is due to appear in court again in October. Each count against him carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and he must also forfeit US$950,000 upon sentencing.

The latest head of Concacaf was chosen in an election on 12th May, with Canada Soccer president Victor Montagliani besting Bermuda’s Larry Mussenden by 25 votes to 16 at the confederation’s congress in Mexico City. Montagliani would become the fourth president of Concacaf in five years and the third in the space of a year. 

Honduran Alfredo Hawit pleaded guilty to bribery and other charges in April. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/PA Images)

That this summer’s tournament is going ahead at all is, given the circumstances, remarkable to say the least. Still, major companies have not shied away from associating with the event. A total of 15 partners, including Nike, Coca-Cola, State Farm, Sprint, Delta Air Lines, Anheuser-Busch, Tag Heuer, Samsung and Makita, have all signed up, filling out the tournament’s commercial inventory. It is perhaps telling, though, that many of those corporations has longstanding ties to soccer in the Americas, through prior deals with Concacaf, Traffic Sports, SUM, or all three.

It is clear, then, that SUM, in a race against time to shore up its partner portfolio, has not strayed far from its reliable bank of go-to sponsors. “Of course,” says Carter, “we have relationships with almost all companies that are doing business in soccer in the Americas but, by the same token, one of the things that we spoke to the confederations about was that brand actually mattered in this tournament, given the legacy of why we were planning so late and selling so late.

“We knew going in that the biggest hurdle that we had to overcome was one of time. That was something that factored into our thinking when we actually put forward our recommended strategy. We said, ‘We won’t know, until we’re actually in the market, what the market will truly bear.’ Ultimately we said, ‘Look, the hardest thing we’ve got is the clock, and it doesn’t matter how good you are, nobody has the ability to turn back time.’”

If tournament sponsorship has suffered in the wake of the corruption scandal, the value of the event’s media rights have, not surprisingly, taken a similar hit. US network Fox Sports was reportedly close to finalising a deal before the furore erupted and while it did eventually return to the negotiating table to seal an agreement this January, the US$15 million it ultimately committed on the domestic English-language TV rights was around four times less than Univision had paid for Spanish-language coverage before the scandal broke.

Since then, the chief focus for IMG’s media sales team has been on the international market. In recent weeks, the agency has signed up the likes of Sky Italia, Australia’s SBS and Colombia’s RCN, while HBS, a division of Infront Sports & Media, has come on board as the event’s production partner. More deals with overseas broadcasters have been forthcoming but there is no denying that recent events have conspired to make contract negotiations far tougher than they might have been.

Indeed, Carter admits that talks with all prospective partners have been slow and difficult in light of the climate surrounding Fifa, not to mention the way in which soccer in the Americas is now viewed with suspicion internationally.

Forget the suits, says Carter, the Centenario is "about the countries and it’s about the players and it’s about the fans". 

SUM, she says, first had to make sure it could “credibly and honourably represent the tournament in a fair and transparent way” before getting involved, and while she is now confident “all of the governance has been put in place and all of the right pieces of the financial puzzle have been put in place to make sure that any monies that are generated are all above board and go the right direction”, she has been at pains to reassure both potential and existing partners.

“We can credibly suggest to anyone that is aligning their brand with this tournament, and ultimately trying to reach the fans that are buying tickets in droves, that this is something that is positive,” she insists.

“You know, at the end of the day, what we often talk about is fans are not fans of the suits, they’re fans of the guys that wear the uniforms on the field. So what we had to do was get all of the suits out of the discussion relative to what the fans care about: they care about the game.

“I think we’ve been able to do that with all of the partners and give them great confidence that this really is about the game and we’ve been able to give them clarity and confidence around the management of the tournament.”

For all the turmoil that has blighted preparations, then, Carter says SUM and IMG are thankfully “in a good place” to hit their revenue targets just weeks out from the start of the tournament. “We, along with the confederations, built a strategy because we didn’t know how fast the market would respond,” she says. “While we had some insight, we weren’t quite sure how everybody [would react]. When push came to shove, would they sign on the dotted line? We’re very, very pleased that they have, and so we are tracking against where we thought we would be.”

More importantly, though, Carter believes the tournament can and will shine a light on what really matters: the soccer.

“We saw it again last summer when, in the midst of all of this, we had unbelievable reaction to the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Canada,” she points out. “The fans came out in record numbers and, certainly from a North American perspective, tuned in in record numbers. That was all while it was fresh and everything was live, so from our perspective, again, the game is what fans pay to see; they pay to see their stars and they’re fans of their country.

“As long as we can get the suits out of the way, this is about the players – it’s about the countries and it’s about the players and it’s about the fans.”