KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The ‘FIFA Family’ label once so beloved in Zurich has fallen into sudden disuse ever since a United States justice director likened the damning corruption scandal to a mafia business. But the ‘family’ allusion is reality in at least one remarkable case.
Among the 164 pages of the US Department of Justice indictment against nine senior football directors and five marketeers are references to ‘Sports Marketing Company A’ and its ‘controlling principal,’ described as ‘Co-conspirator #5.’ That company has been identified by US media as Jersey City-based International Soccer Marketing.
The indictment records how, for well over a decade, ISM ‘ran’ the major club tournament sponsorships of CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation. Further it alleges that ISM, on the orders of veteran Paraguayan football dictator Nicolas Leoz, diverted millions of dollars in bribes and dubious commissions.
Leoz is the former FIFA executive committee veteran who, notoriously, pocketed bribes from bankrupted former world federation marketing partner ISL. Currently he is under house arrest in Asuncion, resisting an extradition application. His age, 86, and poor health suggest the US may struggle to lay its handcuffs on him.
How and why?
Rewind to 1974 and the FIFA presidential election in Frankfurt: English president Sir Stanley Rous was being challenged aggressively by Brazil’s Joao Havelange. Sitting between them was Horst Dassler*, scion of the Adidas empire and fascinated by the political potential generated by the fledgling business of world football.
Initially Dassler was in the Rous camp. He was irritated that Havelange, head of the CBD, had rejected a deal for Adidas to kit out Brazil’s World Cup-holders. But shortly before the vote Dassler was warned by ex-Yugoslavia goalkeeper Blagoje Vidinic** that Africa’s votes were swinging behind Havelange and he was riding the wrong commercial horse if he wanted to spread the Adidas gospel south of the equator.
Dassler duly swapped allegiance and Havelange became the only man ever to oust an incumbent FIFA president; Vidinic’s judgment had been vindicated and Dassler was forever grateful.
The pair had already worked together for a decade. Vidinic had ended his playing career in the United States and then undertaken an itinerant coaching career in football’s developing world. That took him to Africa, hence the crucial insight, and to Latin America where Colombia was home to his vivacious, clever, multi-lingual daughter Zorana.
Vidinic, while securely in the Adidas corner, maintained his coaching career and, along the way, promoted the Dassler cause wherever and whenever he could. The Dassler cause was also now, with Havelange and FIFA, a joint business enterprise [in tandem, during those revolutionary days, with ‘super salesman’ Patrick Nally].
Dassler ran ‘sponsor care’ at the 1982 World Cup in Spain through SMPI, a Monaco-based holding company. SMPI worked out of an office suite at the Eurobuilding Hotel, around the corner from the Estadio Bernabeu.
Family connections saw Zorana employed as a ‘Girl Friday’ to grease the liaison wheels with Coca-Cola, Canon Cameras, Gillette, Iveco, JVC and Seiko. Zorana, bound for Georgetown University, was thus fast-tracked straight in at ground level for a hands-on sports business education.
Dassler and his lieutenant Klaus Hempel, during that World Cup and in that Eurobuilding office suite, set up ISL – with Havelange’s encouragement – to control all FIFA’s commercial business. Subsequently Hempel was the first ceo to sit behind its desk in newly-acquired offices in Luzern.
Zorana Vidinic, meanwhile, was bound for power and influence of her own. Her route has been sketched, albeit inadvertently, by the US justice authorities.
Her International Soccer Marketing was set up in the early 1990s in New Jersey. Surprisingly, it was to this fledgling niche company that Leoz entrusted CONMEBOL’S most highly-prized property in the shape of the Copa Libertadores, South American equivalent of Europe’s Champions League. That Zorana, like his wife Maria Clemencia, had once called Colombia home, may have been no disadvantage.
Here was valuable business, indeed, for ISM: In 1997 Toyota became the first Copa sponsor at a rate of $35m over 10 years; next came Santander for four years at an escalated $40m; then, in 2012, Bridgestone for the next four years at $57m.
Signatories to the contracts included not only Leoz and Zorana (now Danis) but the then secretary-general of CONMEBOL, Argentinian Eduardo De Luca.
Leoz, president of CONMEBOL from 1986 until 2013, ensured that ISM paid a high price for holding on to the lucrative opportunity to wheel and deal. Co-conspirator #5 was allegedly directed by Leoz to divert millions in bribes to a mixture of bank accounts in various names which he controlled in Brazil, Paraguay and Switzerland.
As the indictment states: “Leoz specified various means for the Co-Conspirator #5 to make the payments, including direct payments into bank accounts controlled by Leoz, diversion of funds owed to CONMEBOL into Leoz’s personal bank accounts, and transfers of extra-contractual payments into a CONMEBOL bank account.”
Once in, there was no turning back; it was the entree to a heady lifestyle.
Zorana mixed with the great and the good and the not-so-good of Latin and North American football: not only Leoz and De Luca but the obsequious coterie surrounding CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer whose high-flyer socialising and CONCACAF-fuelled enrichment is now the stuff of gold-encrusted infamy.
Then, one day in November 2011, Blazer was detained in Manhattan by FBI agents and the tower came tumbling down.
Blazer, Daryll and Daryan Warner (sons of ex-CONCACAF head and FIFA powerbroker Jack Warner), billionaire Brazilian business mogul Jose Hawilla and his two Traffic offshoots have all turned state’s evidence in return for plea-bargains; Traffic USA’s now former president Aaron Davidson is on bail as is Jeffrey Webb, the sacked CONCACAF president who accepted extradition from Switzerland.
Where the case goes next is uncertain. Imagine if Leoz and Jack Warner drag out the extradition process in Paraguay and Trinidad respectively – or, indeed, defy it altogether.
Will the US authorities pursue the case against only some of the defendants?
How long will it be before the accused grow impatient of keeping their lives on hold and demand that the case be brought to court or dropped?
Then, if accusations should be dropped in the US, would that not weaken the validity of the extradition applications?
Time is not on the prosecution’s side.
Co-conspirator #5, of course, remains more than an interested spectator. After all, this is not only her business . . . it’s family.
* Horst Dassler, the son of Adidas founder Adolf Dassler, was born in to the family business on March 12, 1936. He died on April 9, 1987.
** Blagoje Vidinic, born in Skopje on June 11, 1934, kept goal for the former Yugoslavia eight times, winning silver and gold medals at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. He died on December 29, 2006.