What the Copa América told us about the balance of power in Conmebol
The Chilean newspaper El Mercurio published a photograph of the VIP box at the Estadio Nacional during the opening ceremony of the 2015 Copa América, naming everybody who surrounded Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet. There was her daughter, a civil servant in the Sports Ministry; the president of the Chilean football federation (ANFP), Sergio Jadue; the president of the Ecuadorean football federation, Luis Chiriboga (Chile were playing Ecuador); and the Argentinian ambassador in Chile, Ginés González García.
So the opening ceremony of the Copa América was attended by neither the Conmebol president, the Paraguayan Juan Ángel Napout, nor anyone representing Fifa.
This was no coincidence. Just a few days earlier in Zurich, on May 27, several senior Conmebol officials had been arrested on corruption charges, some of them relating to the sale of television rights for four Copas América, beginning with the competition in Chile. Among these were the former president of the Brazilian football federation (CBF), José María Marín; the Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo, who represented Conmebol on Fifa’s Executive Committee, and the president of the Venezuela football federation (FVF) Rafael Esquivel. The former Conmebol president, Nicolás Leoz, meanwhile, was being held under house arrest in Paraguay.
The company Datisa, it is alleged, paid bribes totalling US$110m to secure the rights, for which they paid US$352.5m – US$75m for Chile 2015, US$112.5m for the centenary tournament scheduled to be hosted in the USA next year, US$80m for Brazil 2019 and US$85m for Ecuador 2023. The bribes, it is said, were distributed as follows: US$20m to get into the system, then $20m for each tournament other than the US which was worth US$30m. It is said that all that has been paid so far is two payments of US$20m: that initial tranche and the fee for Chile. Each of those were reportedly split into three US$3m payments for the three senior executives – Argentina, Brazil and the Conmebol president; US$1.5m for each of the other seven federation heads on Conmebol and US$500,000 each for 11 junior Conmebol officials.
Datisa was founded in 2013 by the merger of three other companies, the heads of each of which have now been arrested: Traffic (Brazil), managed by José Hawilla; Torneos y Competencias (Argentina), managed by Alejandro Burzaco; and Full Play (Argentina), managed by Hugo Jinkis and his son Mariano.
To give some idea how absurdly low the fees paid by Datisa were, they sold the US Spanish-language rights for Chile 2015 to Univision for US$70m. In other words, they only had to raise US$5m from the television rights for every other country in the world, the English rights in the US, radio rights, merchandising and pitch-side advertising to turn a profit.
That’s why executives were conspicuous by their absence, why the hotel where they were meant to be staying stood empty a couple of days before the tournament, its lobby populated by a handful of journalists hanging around to see who might turn up and might be able to give an answer to how such a scandal could have been allowed to happen.
In the press-centres, billboards that bore the Datisa name were covered in white tape to try to erase the shame. Astonishingly, it was reported during the tournament that Conmebol didn’t even have enough money to pay the US$10m prize fund and that the Chilean government, which had already spent US$176m to upgrade stadiums and infrastructure, stepped in to make up the shortfall.
The big question at the end of the tournament was whether or not the current president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, would dare to come for the presentation ceremony, as he had done many times before. He didn’t, just as he didn’t attend the final of the women’s World Cup, prompting inevitable jibes that he was running scared of Interpol. “My lawyer advised me to stay away from those places in which there’s no security,” he said. “It is better not to expose myself.”
Taking Blatter’s place was Fifa’s third in command, the president of the Spanish football federation, Ángel María Villar. He arrived the day before the final, insisted that he was there “just as a guest” but ended up presenting the medals at the third-place play-off. Villar’s son Gorka, inexplicably, works for Conmebol.
The Conmebol president did at last arrive for the final. He arrived, was taken from the airport to the stadium, handed out the medals and went back, leaving for Paraguay the same day, again presumably for fear of arrest.
As the tournament progressed, the division between the Pacific group – Chile, Colombia and Peru, with Venezuela and Ecuador behind – and the Atlantic group – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay – became increasingly apparent. In football terms, the Pacific region is beginning to assert itself, but there is also a political split. The death of Julio Grondona, the great strong man of Argentinian football, the arrest of Leoz and Figueredo and the admission of the CBF president Marco Polo Del Nero that he had voted for Blatter sapped the strength from the Atlantic group, which used to have an iron control over Conmebol.
That the Conmebol qualifying series for the 2018 World Cup will not run to the same fixed programme as in the previous four tournaments, always ending with what the Pacific group saw as a convenient fixture between Argentina and Uruguay, but will be ordered by a free draw suggests the diminishing grip of the Atlantic – as did some of the refereeing in this Copa América. The political make-up of the continent is changing.