The head of South American soccer, who skipped most of the region’s top competition, said he was forced to stay away from the Copa America to deal with the fallout from turmoil in the sport’s global governing body.
Juan Angel Napout, in his first English-language interview since the FIFA scandal broke May 27, said Conmebol, the South American soccer body, faces a financial crisis after the U.S. Department of Justice charged 14 officials with more than two decades of criminal activity, including racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion.
“It’s a big problem,” said Napout, who arrived in Santiago hours before Saturday night’s Copa America final between hosts Chile and favorite Argentina. “We still haven’t reached the solution to all our financial problems, but in these last three weeks we’ve been paying health programs that had never been paid in 30 years, we paid taxes that were never paid.”
Conmebol is among the worst-affected bodies following the raid on FIFA executives by Swiss authorities acting on behalf of the U.S. Several officials, including Napout, who was elected president in March, stayed away from the three-week regional competition. Venezuelan soccer head Rafael Esquivel remains under arrest in Switzerland, where he’s fighting extradition. And former Conmebol head Nicolas Leoz is under house arrest in Paraguay following the U.S. charges.
The Copa America, soccer’s oldest regional competition, is at the center of the U.S. probe. Authorities there allege current and former South American soccer officials took more than $100 million in bribes from a marketing company in exchange for television and sponsorship rights. The future of a special centenary tournament, slated to be held in the U.S. in 2016, remains in doubt.
“That’s on the lawyer side,” Napout said of the 2016 event. “I don’t want to be quoted on that. Everything is being studied by lawyers.”
Napout, who said he’ll present the Copa America winner’s trophy on Saturday, said Conmebol had hired two auditing firms to “try and clean everything.”
The audit comes after decades of impunity for the soccer group, which operated under a type of diplomatic immunity granted to its headquarters by Paraguay’s government. That immunity was canceled following the FIFA crisis. “We don’t want that, we want Conmebol to be open,” Napout said.
Conmebol, which only has $10 million in cash reserves, has had to pay $2.8 million in unpaid employee health costs and a further $1 million in taxes over the past few weeks, he said.
The soccer body hasn’t yet approached FIFA for financial assistance although it has asked its lenders for support, Napout said.
South American soccer officials aren’t the only ones to have stayed away from the tournament. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was at the final in 2011, has also been absent.
The lack of dignitaries meant Gianni Infantino, general secretary of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, had to assist in handing out medals after Friday’s third-place playoff between Peru and Paraguay.
The current tournament also faces a cash shortfall of more than $30 million, which has put at risk the payment of millions of dollars in promised prize money. Napout has vowed to find a solution. “We’re going to comply with everything,” said Napout.