Exposing corruption in South American football

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Monday 17 October 2016
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Brazil's Gilberto Silva (L) and Juan hold the trophy while Nicolas Leoz, president of the Conmebol, and Sepp Blatter (R), FIFA president, watch after Brazil defeated Argentina in the final of Copa America soccer tournament in Maracaibo July 15, 2007. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (VENEZUELA)

On Saturday October 8, Venezuelan newspaper Panorama published an explosive report on corruption in South American football.

It was written by Liber Nan Piñera, one of the participants in a three-day Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) workshop on investigative sports journalism held in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires earlier this year.

Liber’s report was based on an exclusive interview with Giancarlo Di Martino, the former mayor of Venezuela’s second city Maracaibo.

In the interview, Di Martino admitted that in 2007, while Venezuela was hosting the Copa America football tournament, he paid a bribe of US$1 million to ensure that the tournament final was played in Maracaibo.

Top officials from CONMEBOL, the South American football federation, asked for the bribe during a dinner in Maracaibo, Di Martino said. Sepp Blatter, the now-disgraced former president of world soccer’s governing body FIFA, was at the dinner.

“I want the final in Maracaibo. You, what do you want?” Di Martino recalled saying at the dinner. “We want a million dollars,” the CONMEBOL officials replied.

Di Martino gathered the money from local businessmen, who were keen to bring the final to Maracaibo, knowing it would generate revenue.

Three days later, Maracaibo was duly announced as the host city. The final was played on July 15, 2007.

IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Liber’s report, the culmination of weeks of investigative work funded by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, had an immediate impact.

It was picked up by media not just in Venezuela but across South America.

“On the Saturday of publication, Copa America 2007 was a trending topic on twitter and on Sunday, so was Di Martino,” Liber says.

CNN cited the report, which made news in Uruguay and Paraguay, where two of the men implicated are under house arrest for their alleged role in other corruption scandals.

On Monday, two days after publication, CONMEBOL issued a statement in response to Liber’s report, saying it condemned “the corruption of the past”.

It said it would investigate Di Martino’s claims and try to bring those responsible to justice.

On Tuesday, as Liber’s report continued to make waves, local government officials in Maracaibo held a news conference to pledge their support to CONMEBOL’s investigation.

“I had interviewed Di Martino once before, in April this year, but the idea of doing a report really came together in May when I attended the Thomson Reuters Foundation workshop in Buenos Aires,” Liber says.

“The course was really helpful, giving us a lot of useful tools to help us with an investigation like this, like how to choose a good subject and how to manage sources.”

Liber says he will continue investigating the case and hopes to talk to CONMEBOL directly to ask them about it.

"From the outset, Liber's story proposal seemed solid," said Thomson Reuters Foundation trainer Gideon Long, who mentored Liber through the investigation.

"My main concern was the need for rigourous fact-checking, because his sources were making allegations that were very serious and potentially libelous. But we discussed this at length during our workshop in Buenos Aires, and Liber was diligent in double- and triple-checking his information.