Victims of FIFA scandal? Small clubs and youth teams say they need money that was diverted

RIO DE JANEIRO — The accused in the FIFA scandal are easy to spot: globe-trotting executives charged with diverting millions meant to build the game to their personal accounts. Those who feel victimized aren’t as obvious: Youth players with hand-me-down equipment, semi-pro clubs that can’t afford to travel and developmental leagues that can’t pay referees.

Players and coaches can only dream about millions reportedly siphoned off by top soccer officials.

“The reason that these people were able to make so much money corruptly goes to the love that people have for the sport,” Kelly Currie, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said as 14 top world soccer officials were indicted. “And so it’s taking that love and skimming off the marketing rights that allowed these people to enrich themselves and line their pockets.”

Take Fabio Braz, a 36-year-old defender on Brazil’s lower-division America Football Club, which is deep in debt and having trouble paying for basics. He doesn’t see money trickling down from powerful Brazilian Football Confederation, whose new $35 million headquarters is a monument to wealth and power and whose former president was arrested Wednesday.

The indictment claimed Brazilian soccer officials took bribes for decades, selling off TV rights and marketing agreements while millions were delivered to them personally.

“They take away our money,” Braz told The Associated Press after Friday practice. “We are here daily working our butts off, earning our keep, defending our families, fighting for our survival.”

Narinder K. Bhatia, the vice-president of India’s Delhi Soccer Association, said little money trickles down to the grassroots.

“It’s been very difficult to run the game,” Bhatia said. “We are unable to provide nutrition. A cup of tea and a snack is not enough for players during matches.”

In South Africa, revelations that bribes were paid to get the 2010 World Cup have angered millions.

The indictment said “youth leagues and development programs” were hit hardest by corruption. FIFA spent $1 billion on development projects the last three years. But it’s unclear how much of that money got to players and clubs, or ended up in the bank accounts of FIFA officials.

Christopher Gaffney, who studies global sports events at the University of Zurich, said the victims stretch beyond field, pointing to businesses involved or hurt by the schemes: Employees making shoes in Asian sweatshops who went underpaid, while their companies paid millions in bribes; Nepalese workers who died building massive stadiums so tiny Qatar can host the 2022 World Cup.

“The victims are hidden by the spectacle,” Gaffney said in an email. “White-collar crime has its greatest impacts on those who don’t own a suit.”

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BRAZIL

A worker leaned a ladder on a wall at dawn Thursday and pulled down — letter by letter — a sign on the Brazilian Football Confederation building that read: “Sede Jose Maria Marin,” Jose Maria Marin Building.

Marin’s was among those arrested in Switzerland and is charged with taking millions in bribes from multiple companies. He stepped down in April to become a CBF vice-president.

About 45 kilometres (25 miles) north of the lavish CBF headquarters, Braz practiced Friday at Giulite Coutinho stadium, the home of America Football Club on the gritty outskirts of Rio.

The club’s 11,000-seat stadium is surrounded by dilapidated cinderblock houses, abandoned factories and mountains of trash strewn at every corner.

The club was one of Rio’s best 40 years ago, but now plays three levels below Brazil’s top teams.

Braz has played for top Brazilian clubs and probably earns twice the average of 5,000 reals ($1,650) monthly salary for players on the team.

“The majority of soccer clubs in Brazil have big problems,” Braz said. “Players aren’t paid, and then you see how the CBF benefits with so much money and luxury.”

The 100-year-old club is $20 million in debt, said Wagner Tardelli, head of soccer administration at the club.

Tardelli was a referee until he was pulled off a key match in 2008 by Marco Polo Del Nero, now the CBF president.

Del Nero accused Tardelli of match-fixing. Tardelli sued Del Nero and won his case, but the scandal ruined his career. He said he’d like to see Del Nero “arrested and put in jail.”

“What we see with the CBF is impunity,” Tardelli said. “The truth is the CBF operates as a separate state, and no president in this country has been able to change that institution.”

Tardelli gazed around at a field of young players.

“If this money had been used for the kids and junior leagues — for example — wouldn’t that have been a great help?”

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INDIA

At the Asian Games last year, India was eliminated without scoring a goal. The massive nation has never played in the World Cup.

Rahul Paswan practiced this week with the semi-pro Royal Rangers on the uneven turf at New Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium.

“The biggest problem for us is buying equipment,” said Paswan, an 18-year-old midfielder. “My family is unable to support me enough. I can’t think of buying top-notch soccer boots. We also seldom get to play on a decent field.”

Bhatia, the vice-president of the Delhi Soccer Association, said development money from FIFA seldom filters down.

“Most of the money is spent on high staff salaries and hotel bills,” Bhatia said. “There should be no diversion of money, it should go toward developing the game.”

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AFRICA

Revelations of bribes from the indictment have been front-page news in South Africa, where soccer clubs are crying out for funding.

South Africa’s northern neighbour Zimbabwe is a stark example in Africa of how soccer still struggles in poorer countries.

The Zimbabwe Football Association recently had to auction off an artificial-surface training field for $115,000 to pay down its debt.

In West Africa, FIFA has funded the Guinea Football Federation’s new headquarters, with gleaming offices and boardrooms, a reward for top officials who keep FIFA President Sepp Blatter in office.

Critics say that money would have been better spent on fields and equipment.

“FIFA has become a danger for small nations like Guinea,” Guinean political analyst Aliou Diallo said. “The heads there butter themselves up with the misery of our fragile economies.”

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C. Rajshekhar Rao in New Delhi, Renata Brito in Rio and Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

Stephen Wade, The Associated Press