The 3 Caudillos: the FIFA Heads Who Corrupted Soccer in the Americas

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Fourteen names appeared in the indictment that accompanied the dramatic downfall of the heads of global football. All fourteen were from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The news was not greeted by shock or disappointment in most of the region. Instead, it was met by cathartic, if bitter joy, that the rotten and corrupt soccer administrators in the region were finally exposed.

“They called me mad but thankfully today the truth is out and I am enjoying it,” Argentina’s soccer legend Diego Maradona told an Argentine radio station, reported The Guardian. “They hate football. They hate transparency. Enough shady dealings. Enough lying to the people!”

The details paint a picture familiar to anyone from Latin America and the Caribbean: strongmen with near absolute power using corruption, patronage and intimidation to enrich themselves and their faithful. These men oversaw the dizzying and astonishingly lucrative marketing expansion of the world’s most popular sport — and allegedly used the opportunity to steal millions of dollars to fund their lavish lifestyles and cement their grip on power in ways that would make a Colombian cartel blush.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Soccer and Organized Crime 

Leading the way were three caudillos who wielded immense power from the top seats in regional football and whose corrupt influence spread across the globe. This triumvirate of strongmen dominated football administration in Latin America and the Caribbean for over two decades.

In the north was Jack Warner, president of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); in the south was Nicolas Leoz, president of the Confederation of South American Football (CONMEBOL); and presiding over the region’s soccer super power was Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian Soccer Confederation (CBF).

Leoz: The Untouchable 

The first to assume power was Nicolas Leoz, who was elected president of CONMEBOL in 1986 after first cutting his teeth in soccer administration working alongside the son of Paraguay’s military dictator at Asuncion’s Club Libertad.

Leoz set himself up as the ruler of a de facto independent state, untouchable by the laws of the land. After moving CONMEBOL’s headquarters to his native Paraguay, he obtained embassy status for the body, ensuring diplomatic immunity for CONMEBOL officials and preventing the authorities from seizing documents or freezing assets.

For a man from humble beginnings on the isolated arid plains of the Paraguayan Chaco, Leoz’s reign was marked by vanity. CONMEBOL’s conference center bears his name, the new stadium of Club Libertad bears his name, there was even, briefly and ultimately embarrassingly, a Nicolas Leoz Golden Cup soccer tournament.

However, while Leoz loved the limelight, much of his business dealings took place in the shadows. According to the US indictment in the FIFA case (pdf), Leoz used South America’s premier international and club tournaments — the Copa America and the Copa Libertadores as his private cash cows. In return for securing commercial rights for marketing companies, Leoz — along with his cronies in national football associations — siphoned off millions of dollars in bribes paid through Swiss bank accounts, intermediaries and front businesses.

Teixeira: Powerful and Vindictive

The next of the three caudillos to take power was Ricardo Teixeira, who in 1989 took over the CBF from his father-in-law and former FIFA president Joao Havelange after previously working as a stockbroker. According to Teixeira, speaking for a profile in Brazilian magazine Piaui, the succession was “just the way things came together.” According to others, it was pure nepotism.

Teixeira quickly built up a broad network of power and influence that ran from his close relationship with then Brazilian President Luiz “Lula” Da Silva down to the numerous members of his family that snapped up top soccer jobs. Anyone questioning his cabal of cronies from the outside was met with a verbal barrage, legal action or murky political maneuverings.

Teixeira, for example, told critical journalists that he would “make their lives hell.” He backed these words with actions: he has sued one journalist over 50 times and once punished a network for critical coverage of him by changing match schedules to damage their advertising revenues.

Corruption allegations have never been far away. Teixeira has been accused of everything from contraband smuggling to money laundering. He is not named in the US indictment, but the Brazilian media have identified him as one of the unnamed co-conspirators.

Corruption surrounding two deals struck during his presidency is described in detail. The first, a highly lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike, which has long fallen under suspicion and was even subject of a congressional hearing in 2001. The second, a deal for commercial rights for Brazil’s domestic cup the Copa do Brasil, was struck in the final years of Teixeira’s reign. The indictment describes his replacement as CBF president complaining bitterly that he had to continue paying bribes to his predecessor, Teixeira.

Warner: Shameless 

The triptych of images of corruption in football in the Americas was complete after the election in 1990 of Jack Warner to the presidency of CONCACAF, a position he would use to make himself a powerful figure at home in Trinidad and Tobago, and abroad.

A history teacher before embarking on his career in sports administration, Warner is now head of his own political party, owner of his own newspaper and a property tycoon. During his years in soccer he managed to accumulate enormous power and wealth for both himself and his family through a combination of charm and cunning.

However, his arrogance led to controversy, whether it was for allegedly strong-arming a sick Nelson Mandela into flying around the world to personally court him during South Africa’s bid for the 2010 World Cup, or threatening to spit on journalists.

The list of corruption allegations against Warner has been growing for decades and incorporates everything from touting World Cup tickets to siphoning off money meant for relief for Haitian earthquake victims. The US indictment accuses Warner of using his position in the region to sell off the commercial rights to the Gold Cup — the region’s international tournament — and World Cup qualifying matches to the highest briber.

Regional Corruption Goes Global 

Leoz, Warner and Teixeira held soccer in the Americas in their grip, but their influence did not stop there. As members of FIFA’s Executive Committee they became central figures in the scandals that reached into the highest levels of FIFA and tainted football’s flagship global tournament, the FIFA World Cup.

Their roles on the Executive Committee gave the Americas administrators immense power over choosing who would host the tournament and who could commercially exploit it, as well as the ability to pull the strings in FIFA’s internal political battles.

In the US indictment, Warner is accused of taking a $1 million bribe in exchange for his support for Morocco’s bid for the 2010 World Cup — support that apparently slipped away after he received $10 million dollars in exchange for switching his and two colleagues’ allegiance to South Africa.

It is far from the first time such allegations have surfaced, Warner has been accused of taking a bribe for supporting the highly controversial decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. All three men were named in a parliamentary hearing in the UK as corruptly peddling their influence — including attempts allegedly made by Nicolas Leoz to secure a knighthood from the British Queen and for England’s FA Cup — the oldest domestic competition in world soccer — to be named after him in return for supporting England’s bid.

World Cup influence peddling would come to mark the beginning of the downfall of two of the three caudillos. In 2010, just days before FIFA’s executive committee was set to vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the BBC screened a report with documentary evidence purporting to show that Leoz and Teixeira had taken bribes in exchange for pushing through contracts with sports marketing company ISL for the commercial rights to the World Cup. As investigators closed in, both men resigned citing “health reasons.”

While Warner escaped attentions over the ISL investigation, he was also forced to resign due to a scandal detailed in the indictment. Although a long term ally of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in the 2011 presidential elections, Warner switched his support to Blatter’s rival Mohamed bin Hammam. He then encouraged the rest of the Caribbean football associations to do the same by dispensing packets of $40,000 in cash to each one. According to the indictment, when one member reported the payment to CONCACAF, Warner responded by telling the delegates, “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”

End of the Caudillos?

The future for Leoz, Teixeira and Warner is now uncertain. The 86-year-old Leoz was placed under house arrest in Paraguay but has since been moved to a hospital over health concerns. Teixeira has now been indicted for financial crimes in Brazil, and, according to media reports, he is next on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s arrest list.

Warner, meanwhile, was briefly arrested in Trinidad before being released on bail. However, he does not look set to go quietly, releasing a video (see below) in which he promises the “gloves are off” before announcing he fears for his life as he has evidence of links between FIFA and elections in Trinidad.

“Not even death will stop the avalanche that is coming” he said. “The die is cast. There can be no turning back. Let the chips fall where they fall.”

However, while the fall of the Leoz, Warner and Teixeira is celebrated — along with the recent resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter — it remains far from certain it will mark the end of the era of the football caudillos in the Americas.

The replacements for all three men in the region’s football federations are named in the indictment and face similar charges of corruption. While they have themselves now been ousted, two of their successors, the new heads of CONMEBOL and the CBF, are already coming under pressure and facing corruption allegations. 

Events of recent weeks have amounted to a purge of virtually the entire FIFA leadership and the old guard in the Americas is all but gone. But as the region knows all too well, ousting caudillos is far easier than replacing the structures within which they thrive.

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