Soccer: The Tainted King of Sports Takes the World Stage

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The Russia 2018 World Cup has begun. But behind the much awaited games are the stains of corruption and ties to organized crime tarnishing the most popular, and money generating sport in the world.

It was July 21, 2013, in the M&T Bank stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The US national soccer team was playing El Salvador in the quarter finals of the Gold Cup, the most important tournament of the CONCACAF, the FIFA-affiliated professional soccer federation governing North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The stadium was packed. Flags were waving, and people cried out their support. It is the same joy that permeates any field where the most popular sport in the world is played. But shadows also hover over matches like these.

At the game in Baltimore, one such scandal involving several of its players was already weighing on the Salvadoran team. It would become public a bit less than a month later, when El Salvador’s top sporting newspaper revealed all the details about how the team had been selling matches to an international mafia organization involved in gambling.

El Salvador ended that game, as it does so many, defeated: the US won 5-1. The Salvadoran fans who made the trek to the stadium to see their team play returned to their homes disappointed once again, but this time angry as well. “The bad players are forgiven, but not the thieves,” one fan told me.

He had driven six hours from North Carolina to see the Central American team play.

Over the course of the following months, El Salvador would learn all the details about the matches that were fixed. The national team’s main players made a deal with the representatives of a mafia based in Singapore in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars to guarantee spreads, fake injuries and purposely lose matches. The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office intervened, questioned alleged participants, issued provisional search warrants and fanned the flames of a robust media scandal. But after all the fanfare, no one was put behind bars.

In the years since, very little has changed. Salvadoran soccer continues to be one of the worst in the continent. One of the players defamed for fixing games continues to play on the national team. Even the coach the team had during the scandal has returned.

The match fixing by the Salvadoran team is only one example of the massive corruption that has existed in the International Federation of Association Football (Fédération Internationale de Football Association – FIFA), the professional association that runs the largest soccer business in the world and organizes and manages the commercial revenue from the World Cup competitions, such as the one starting today, June 14, in Russia. Like that afternoon in Baltimore, the same shadows of corruption will darken Russia’s stadiums, relentlessly pursuing the king of all sports, as commentators affectionately refer to the sport that awakens passions from the Americas to Europe, Asia and Africa.

The shadows plaguing soccer, its players and its stadiums often originate with national or international mafias or other large organized crime groups. And they have been tarnishing the sport for many years.

When it comes to the World Cups, the dirty deals usually start in FIFA’s halls when the countries are chosen as venues for its tournaments. One report published in the New York Times on June 10, reveals how the government of Vladimir Putin managed, through political lobbying, to silence suspicions that his government and non-state actors paid bribes to ensure Russia would host the 2018 World Cup.

TV Rights, T-Shirts, Stickers and Bribes

It was Wednesday, June 13, the eve the World Cup, in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. Along many streets throughout the city, from its historic center to the outlying neighborhoods climbing the hillsides, street vendors were tirelessly trying to make the sale of the day, offering T-shirts featuring the most popular teams in the world. Without a national team in the running to ratchet up their pride, Salvadorans usually root for Brazil, Argentina or even Spain, mainly due to the popularity of the European leagues shown on local and cable television. On the streets of San Salvador, a shirt costs an average of $10.

One week earlier, in Langley Park, Maryland, home to thousands of Salvadoran emigres, a man buys stickers to fill an album of all the national team players in this year’s World Cup. The Italian company Panini prints the album every four years, coinciding with the cup. In the United States, each five-sticker pack costs $1, and each album has 670 spaces for the stickers, so filling an album could potentially cost approximately $400, according to a study conducted by Banco Santander and cited in Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión. To get an idea of the value of this business, Peru’s El Comercio quoted an executive of the company saying that in 2017, Panini registered earnings of $65 million just in Spain, one of the countries where the album is the most popular.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Soccer and Organized Crime

But such figures pale in comparison to television broadcasting rights, which is where organized crime and soccer mafias have taken root. According to a BBC report based on information from FIFA, the professional football association has generated a total of approximately $10 billion from international competitions between 2011 and 2014. And this does not include the national federations, which can reach up to hundreds of millions of dollars for the more popular British or Spanish leagues.

A large part of those earnings are related to sales of television broadcasting rights. To cite just one example: according to FIFA, in the United States alone, sales of broadcasting rights reached $2.5 billion. US court documents from 2015 from a criminal case against FIFA officials, say that granting broadcasting rights in exchange for bribes has been one of the main sources of corruption and bribery in the soccer world.

Soccer in Central America illustrates how these mafias operate. One of those accused in the open case against the FIFA officials testified in a New York court in 2013 that, in seven out of 12 of CONCACAF’s Gold Cups, FIFA officials received bribes to steer marketing and television rights to Traffic International, a Brazilian sports advertising company based in Miami.

A Boost for Drug Trafficking

Soccer’s stains do not end with bribery, though, as the king of sports is also caught in the snare of drug trafficking. The case of Andrés Escobar has reached mythic proportions. The defenseman for Colombia’s national team was murdered in July 1994, after scoring an own goal that consequently eliminated the country from that year’s World Cup, which was hosted by the United States. According to the late player’s family, those responsible for his murder were gamblers linked to drug trafficking.

Other examples of criminals with ties to drug trafficking groups involving themselves in the soccer world abound in the Americas, and InSight Crime has reported. One of the most prominent cases is that of businessman Juan Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” the alleged leader of the Texis Cartel. He was president of the Salvadoran Football Federation (Federación Salvadoreña de Fútbol – FESFUT) but was also included at one time on the US Treasury Department’s foreign narcotics “Kingpin List” and is currently being prosecuted in El Salvador under money laundering charges.

In Mexico there is the case of Rodolfo Dávila Córdova, a Juárez Cartel financial operator, but also a sports agent who managed the transfers of professional Latin American soccer players to European teams.

In Honduras, the Real Sociedad de Tocoa, a club in Colón department, was connected to the Rivera Maradiaga family, also known as the Cachiros, one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in the country. Two of its members have been convicted in the United States.

In 2013, the US Treasury Department added a local Colombian soccer team, the Envigado Football Club, and its majority shareholder Juan Pablo Upegui Gallego, to its kingpin list for their alleged ties to drug trafficking, mafia “federation” Oficina de Envigado and Medellín’s organized crime network following Pablo Escobar’s death.

But today there will be little talk of drug trafficking, bribes or rigging games. The world will be fixated, as it is every four years, on only one word: goal.

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