KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The lawyers of Nicolas Leoz will not need to extend their court challenge against his extradition to the United States. The disgraced ex-president of South American football confederation CONMEBOL has died in his native Paraguay aged 90.
Leoz was one of the most three most high-profile targets of the US Justice Department’s FIFAGate investigation still beyond its reach.
Brazil’s former football supremo Ricardo Teixeira remains in Rio de Janeiro, protected by a clause in the national constitution while Jack Warner, one-time supremo of central and north America’s CONMEBOL, continues to contest extradition from Trinidad & Tobago.
Three other corrupt conspirators who died either before standing trial or serving out their sentences have also died: former CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer and Brazilian marketing guru Jose Hawilla; and Argentina’s one-time FIFA vice-president Julio Grondona.
Leoz, according to the US indictment and court documents, was the man who institutionalised corruption within the highest reaches of CONMEBOL.
He was its president between 1986 to 2014 and a similarly long-serving member of the executive committee of the world governing body.
It was also Leoz who entangled many other South American football bosses in a systematic plundering of CONMEBOL’s commercial revenues by diverting to them illicit ‘bonuses’ running to millions of dollars.
The death of Leoz on Wednesday was confirmed by his lawyer, Ricardo Preda, and apparently followed the latest in a series of heart attacks at the Migone hospital in Asuncion to which he had been admitted after fracturing a hip in a fall at his home. He had also been suffering from cancer.
A history teacher turned radio reporter turned and lawyer, Leoz began climbing the football ladder as president of the Libertad club whose stadium still bears his name. Later he chaired the Paraguayan federation before taking control of CONMEBOL.
One of his successors, Juan Angel Napout, is currently serving a FIFAGate-pursued jail sentence in the US for corruption – in effect maintaining the system which Leoz had created.
In 2000 Leoz published his autobiography. The title, Pido La Palabra (Give Me the Floor), amused FIFA officials and fellow exco members since Leoz was notorious for dozing off during committee meetings. Eight years later he was awarded honorary citizenship of Colombia in recognition of his ‘good offices’ to the country’s sports authorities.
In April 2013 Leoz suddenly quit CONMEBOL, the FIFA exco and the presidency of the 2013 Confederations Cup organising committee. Days later documents were published revealing he had received illicit commissions from FIFA’s bankrupted former marketing partner ISL Marketing.
Leoz was then one of the 40-plus individuals and companies named in the original US DoJ indictment in May 2015 which saw the detention of seven senior world football officials in Zurich on the eve of FIFA Congress in Zurich – hence the term ‘FIFAGate’.
By then he had retired from football administration but was held under house arrest – at his home and in hospital – while he undertook an extradition appeal which remained ongoing.
US court documents suggested that Leoz was responsible for the ‘diversion’ of more than $100m including $25m to his own accounts. He denied allegations that he had sought bribes in the scandal-scarred process which led to the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
Leoz was also said to have offered England his support for 2018 in return for a knighthood. A FIFA internal investigation cleared the various official bid committees of any malpractice.
US court papers alleged that Leoz played a major role in coercing a New Jersey marketing agency to divert slices of CONMEBOL sponsorship monies to his fellow members of the CONMEBOL executive committee.
International Soccer Marketing was owned and run by a family friend Zorana Danis (nee Vidinic) who is understood to have agreed a settlement of her own with US investigators.
The indictment states: “Leoz specified various means for the Co-Conspirator #5 [understood to be ISM/Danis] 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.”
In December 2017 further insights into Leoz’s corrupting influence were offered in the New York trial which resulted in guilty verdicts on former football bosses Napout and Brazilian Jose Maria Marin.
Brazilian businessman Hawilla said in evidence that he had been persuaded in 1991 to pay Leoz a bribe to renew a commercial rights contract for the Copa America in 1993, 1995 and 1997.
Alejandro Burzaco, former ceo of Argentinian rights agency TyC, told the court that Leoz had diverted into his own account a $5m FIFA payment meant for CONMEBOL from revenues generated by the Club World Cup. Burzaco also claimed Leoz had accepted bribes to vote for Qatar in the 2022 World Cup ballot.