RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - As if losing the World Cup to Europe on home soil for the first time was not enough, Latin American soccer now faces more humiliation with some of its most powerful executives arrested in a massive international corruption sweep.
Yet while local fans were saddened not to see one of their own teams win last year’s trophy in Brazil, they were cheering the unprecedented arrests and probes announced on Wednesday.
“This should have happened long ago!” said Wilson Suares, 66, a newspaper seller, in Rio de Janeiro, the city that is for many the sport’s spiritual ‘home’ and where the World Cup final was held - and won by Germany - in 2014.
“All those people are just there to steal,” he said, in views echoed in streets and Tweets across the soccer-mad region.
Latin American fans have long booed officials assumed to be on the take, amid deep public disgust at graft in the game. Sentiment against world governing body FIFA was strong during big street protests before the Brazil World Cup.
Seven of the region’s best-known soccer figures were detained in Switzerland on Wednesday to face possible extradition to the United States. U.S. officials said the investigation exposed complex money laundering schemes, millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.
Those arrested are: Jeffrey Webb, vice-president of world body FIFA, president of North and Central American body CONCACAF and head of soccer in the Cayman Islands; Eduardo Li, who runs Costa Rica’s soccer federation; Julio Rocha, who headed Nicaragua’s federation; Eugenio Figueredo, another FIFA vice-president who used to run Uruguayan soccer; Rafael Esquivel who is the sport’s boss in Venezuela; Jose Maria Marin, who used to be the head of Brazil’s federation; and Costas Takkas, another CONCACAF official.
Those detained or their representatives were not available to comment.
The seven were taken before dawn at a hotel in Switzerland - where suites cost up to $4,000 a night - before a FIFA congress where its president Sepp Blatter was seeking re-election.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t our police who caught them, but somebody had to catch them. Thieves have to go to jail,” said former Brazilian soccer great Romario, who was on the team that won the World Cup in 1994 and is now a senator.
“I hope this has positive effects and that these events allow us in South America and Brazil to definitively clean up our soccer,” he added, praising Swiss and U.S. authorities.
Another two soccer officials - Nicolas Leoz, a Paraguayan who used to be head of South American soccer body CONMEBOL; and Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice-president and CONCACAF head from Trinidad and Tobago - were also named in the U.S. indictment.
A judge granted Warner, who faces 12 charges, TT$2.5 million (260,379 pounds) bail when he appeared in court in Port of Spain on Wednesday, although local TV reported he did not have adequate asset documents on him to post bail so he was spending the night in jail. His lawyers planned to secure his release on Thursday.
The United States is seeking his extradition.
Warner, a parliamentarian, said he was innocent and noted he had left soccer activities four years ago.
The U.S. charges run from racketeering and bribery to wire fraud and money laundering. Many fans and players across Latin America and the Caribbean have long believed soccer’s governors enrich themselves at the expense of grassroots development.
“We have a FIFA with millions of dollars and there are players in Uruguay, in Costa Rica, where I‘m told they don’t earn more than $150 (a month),” former Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona told local TV, adding he was “enjoying” the spectacle of top officials being arrested.
The news from Switzerland came at a bad time for Latin American football federations: their showpiece tournament, the Copa America, starts in Chile on June 11.
There was no suggestion the event would be canceled, and embarrassed national federations quickly put out statements disassociating themselves from corruption.
The news also comes on the heels of a string of high-profile corruption scandals that have stung Latin American politicians in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere.
Brazil’s soccer body, the CBF, whose new headquarters was inaugurated last year bearing Marin’s name, said it would “completely support” any investigation.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said investigations should help make local soccer more professional, Costa Rica announced its own investigation, and Bolivian President Evo Morales said FIFA heads should live for soccer, not for enriching themselves.
Some fans called for action against FIFA head Blatter.
“He has got to go, he needs a red card,” said Juan Escobedo Martinez, 75, a Mexico City taco seller.
Most of those arrested or named on Wednesday are high-profile characters in their home countries.
Marin, remembered in Brazil for surreptitiously pocketing a winner’s medal for teenagers who won the Sao Paulo Youth Cup in 2012, warned last year that Brazil’s performance in the World Cup would take them either to “heaven or hell”.
It turned out to be the latter after they were demolished 7-1 by Germany in the semi-final.
Li was seen as the architect of Costa Rica’s excellent World Cup run in Brazil and named 2014 person of the year by La Nacion newspaper.
Venezuela’s Esquivel is nicknamed “Whisky-vel” by detractors who accuse him of preferring corruption and the high life to professionally running the sport. He denies the accusations.
Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas, Enrique Andres Pretel in San Jose, Ivan Castro in Managua, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Rosalba O'Brien in Santiago, Andrew Downie in Edinburgh, Luis Ampuero, Sarah Marsh and Maximilian Heath in Buenos Aires, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Diego Ore and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Max de Haldevang in Mexico City; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray, Stuart Grudgings and Martin Howell