Brazil's tainted former soccer chiefs enjoy safe haven

Rosa SULLEIRO
The president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) Marco Polo Del Nero in March 2017, before the announcement of players chosen for upcoming qualifiers for the Russia World Cup 2018

When the former boss of Brazilian football was arrested in Zurich in a 2015 graft case that would see him sentenced to prison, his successor in the job didn't lose a minute - he got on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro and didn't look back.

That was three years ago, and since then Marco Polo Del Nero has seen FIFA's top brass toppled in a scandal that has disgraced the world's biggest sport, including ex-Brazil football chief Jose Maria Marin who was sentenced in New York on Wednesday to four years in prison for taking $6.6 million in bribes.

Del Nero, former head of the Brazilian Football Confederation, is wanted for trial in the same case and in April received a life ban from FIFA.

But in his native Brazil, Del Nero is safe from extradition, which is only permitted in narco-trafficking cases. Also sheltering here is Ricardo Teixeira, who likewise headed the Brazilian Football Confederation -- in his case for 23 years -- and stands accused in the same bribery case.

Both were accused by US authorities in December 2015. By then, though, they were safely in their Rio residences.

Their homes echo the years when Del Nero and Teixeira were allegedly milking the system by taking bribes from sports marketing companies in exchange for broadcast contracts at major soccer tournaments. That was a period when the duo, now in their 70s, lived rock star lives, surrounded by models, yachts, and the trappings of stardom.

Today they continue to enjoy the high life even though they cannot travel for fear of arrest.

"They avoid showing themselves, but in no way have they lost the standard of living they used to have," said Brazilian Juca Kfouri, who has written about his country's scandal-ridden football chiefs for years.

- Friends in high places -

Teixeira had already stepped aside when the bribery case broke, abruptly leaving the Brazilian confederation three years earlier under a cloud of scandals and no longer protected by his ex-father in law, the late former FIFA president Joao Havelange.

In his place came Marin, and then in 2015 Del Nero. Neither the arrest of Marin, nor his eventual trial, nor even a Brazilian Senate probe headed by ex-footballer Romario could derail Del Nero. He has too many powerful friends in Brazil's establishment.

"For years, the connections between the CBF (confederation) and Brazilian politicians were enormous. These leaders benefitted from the way that past relationships created a sort of protection," said Jamil Chade, author of the book "Politics, Bribes and Football."

Congress has been no impediment to the CBF leaders' alleged activities.

The Senate committee probe ended without a demand for charges, and a further effort by Romario that resulted in a judicial investigation saw its work still secret months later.

Teixeira has also dodged a Spanish attempt to bring him to justice for alleged involvement in the same case that saw ex-Barcelona boss Sandro Rosell jailed. The request was made more than a year ago and Brazilian authorities only say it is being handled in secret.

- Still in the game? -

Since Marin's arrest on May 27, 2015, Del Nero's globe-trotting days have ended. He's the "Marco Polo who never travels," goes the joke.

Marin and Del Nero were once so close they were described in court as twins -- but that relationship ended when Del Nero fled Switzerland, abandoning Marin's elderly wife.

"Marin was the king who made the toasts, but Marco Polo managed everything," Marin's lawyer said at the New York trial.

Some say that Del Nero is still in the game.

"His house in Rio is still visited by everyone from the football world and by top officials from the CBF. He even had decisive influence on the election of Rogerio Caboclo as the next president," Kfouri says.

Teixeira's not looking too uncomfortable either, even if he was alleged in the trial to be one of mainstays of a corruption scheme along with Paraguay's Nicolas Leoz and the late Julio Grondona, who ruled Argentinian football for decades.

Teixeira however has no travel plans as he is under investigation in Andorra, Spain and Switzerland.

"Is there a safer place than Brazil? Which? Why would I run if here I'm not accused of anything? Everything they accuse me of abroad is not a crime in Brazil. Not that I'm saying if I did it or not," he told Folha de S.Paulo newspaper last year.