Asuncion (AFP) – When the FIFA corruption trial kicked off in New York this week, ex-South American soccer boss Nicolas Leoz was a significant absentee, watching from the comfort of his home in Paraguay.
Leoz, one of the main suspects in the huge bribery and money laundering scandal being investigated by the US Justice Department, is where any 89-year old is content to be, albeit under house arrest.
The former president of the Confederation of South American Football (CONMEBOL) is suspected of receiving millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for marketing and TV rights for games. He denies any wrongdoing and his legal team has so far frustrated all attempts to extradite him.
Forty-two officials and marketing executives, and three companies, were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million.
Along with Brazilians Joao Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira and the Argentine Julio Grondona, Paraguay’s Leoz held the reins of South American football from the 1980s until 2013.
“They were the masterminds of corruption in South American football. They are the ones who should be on trial,” says Andrew Jennings, author of the book “The Dirty Game: Uncovering the Scandals at FIFA.”
– Bribes or commissions? –
Leoz has been fighting extradition since shortly after seven FIFA executives were arrested by Swiss police in June.
He was admitted to hospital for a heart condition while his successor as CONMEBOL chief, Eugenio Figueredo, was being arrested in Geneva.
He was later detained by police in Paraguay and placed under house arrest in the capital Asuncion, where CONMEBOL is based.
But he remains a powerful figure in Paraguay.
Along with a string of business interests, he owns the hospital to which he was admitted. He has a suite on the top floor of the ultra-modern Sanatorio Migone and his son-in-law is the director.
The chances of him being extradited to face trial are nil, according to his lawyer.
Leoz “is 89, is in delicate health, which is worsening over time. He has nursing care 24 hours a day. He hasn’t traveled by plane for the last four years,” said lawyer Ricardo Preda.
“We are convinced that the extradition request will not succeed,” he said.
“Without going into the substance of the matter, the facts he is accused of in the United States are not punishable in Paraguay,” said Preda.
The alleged bribes are considered as commissions in South America because the money involved was a transaction between private individuals, he added. It’s only an offense if they are paid to a public body or to a civil servant, the lawyer said.
– Support for Qatar –
CONMEBOL has filed its own suit against Leoz for breach of trust, criminal association and money laundering.
“CONMEBOL carried out an audit, which highlighted transfers of more than 110 million dollars from CONMEBOL to accounts held by Nicolas Leoz, validated by the executive committee, without supporting documents,” the South American soccer body’s lawyer Osvaldo Granada told AFP.
“The sums were received on his personal accounts, then transferred to companies in the United States,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the Paraguayan justice has delayed the investigations.”
The association is also pressing charges against Leoz’s successor, Figueredo.
According to FIFA, Leoz is also one of several officials suspected of receiving bribes to support the Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
In Asuncion, the father of our lives with his second wife, a Colombian half his age, in the exclusive Villa Mora district.
A journalist by training, he ran Paraguay’s Libertad football club in the 1970s. They play their home games at the “Estadio Nicolas Leoz”.
In that era, said CONMEBOL’s new president Alejandro Dominguez, “the objective was money and football was a means to obtain it.”