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FIFA arrests resonate in Brazil, still smarting from World Cup waste

Brazilians reacted with a sense of vindication to the racketeering, money laundering, and other corruption charges brought against FIFA officials and corporate executives.

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A boy walks with a representation of a Brazilian national flag through the Santa Luzia favela, ahead of fellow residents in a protest against the money spent on preparations for the upcoming World Cup, in Brasilia, Brazil, May 30, 2014.

Eraldo Peres/AP/File

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The US criminal probe into alleged corruption in international soccer has hit hard this week in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 13 out of the 14 indicted figures reside.

But perhaps nowhere in the region do the charges resonate as much as in Brazil, where Wednesday’s news of the racketeering, money laundering, and other corruption charges against past and present FIFA officials and corporate sports executives was greeted with a sense of vindication.

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Starting in 2013, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the billions of dollars of public money spent on preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

And nearly a year after the tournament kicked off in 12 Brazilian cities, signs of government waste are everywhere. Arenas in the country’s interior, the Amazon, and in the northeast play host to children’s birthday parties and religious events, and sit half empty – even when local teams have games. One arena was reported to have homeless squatters in its locker rooms, and in Brasília, the capital, the World Cup stadium is used as a bus parking lot.

The FIFA indictments, which include allegations against three Brazilians, also fall against the backdrop of one of Brazil’s biggest corruption cases, the so-called “Car Wash” scandal. It’s a landmark case that has implicated top construction firms and the state-run oil company, Petrobras. More than 110 people, including politicians and private-sector executives, have been formally accused of participating in the scheme. 

As a result, government leaders and citizens have stood in support of punishing those caught up in the FIFA racket – a sign, perhaps, both of growing intolerance for corruption in Brazil and of an attempt by a scandal-weary administration to bolster an anti-corruption stance.

President Dilma Rousseff has signaled that the 2014 World Cup should be examined for signs of corruption; a local senator has called for a parallel Brazilian investigation; and Brazil’s Justice Department and federal police said Thursday they will investigate other ways the FIFA corruption schemes may have involved Brazil.  

“The Brazilian bandwidth for dealing with corruption may be overloading because of the Car Wash investigation,” says Matthew Taylor, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington who studies corruption in Brazil. “But I think if there was any possible type of scandal that could attract Brazilian attention right now, it’s a soccer scandal.”

'Investigate all the World Cups' 

Three Brazilians – including the former Brazilian Football Confederation president, a sports-marketing executive, and a broadcaster – were named in the US indictment. José Hawilla of the São Paulo-based sports marketing firm the Traffic Group already pleaded guilty and pledged to forfeit $151 million in ill-gained funds, while José Marguiles, the broadcaster, is accused of facilitating illicit payments.

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The third indictee, former Brazilian Football Confederation (BFC) president, José Maria Marin, is no stranger to controversy here. His public life began as a São Paulo politician and supporter of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Brazil is also home to João Havelange, FIFA's president from 1974 to 1998, who is considered the mastermind behind the organization’s modern day model.

On Wednesday, President Rousseff gave the investigations her stamp of approval, adding that, “If they have to investigate the World Cup, then investigate all the World Cups," she said. "This position [from the Brazilian government] is valid for all issues, from the Car Wash to this case."

While Swiss authorities are investigating votes cast for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Qatar and Russia, no allegations relating to Brazil’s securing of the 2014 World Cup – an uncontested bid – have yet surfaced. Still, many here suspect corruption in the granting of stadium construction contracts and media rights.

With the Olympic Games on the horizon, the Brazil Institute's Mr. Taylor expects there to be “intense oversight” over the construction processes. “There’s already immense dissatisfaction with white elephants from the World Cup and suspicion that [stadiums] were built in part to line the pockets of certain public officials,” he says.

In a show of zeal for carrying the investigations forward, a former football star-turned-senator Romário de Souza Faria has collected enough signatures to start a congressional inquiry into BFC contracts leading up to last year’s World Cup.

Citizen support

The US-ordered arrests were also seen as a positive step by citizens like Pedro Guilherme Friere. The schoolteacher and activist is on trial with 22 other demonstrators from last year’s World Cup, charged with “criminal association” for what the police allege were plans to commit acts of violence during the World Cup final.

Mr. Freire says his only intention was to call attention to corruption – in the very way that is now being applauded globally.

In particular, the arrest of Mr. Marin, known for his ties to the military dictatorship, is “very important,” says Friere. “People have started to say that we need to have a military dictatorship again ... so we can get rid of corruption” in the fallout from the Car Wash investigations, Freire says. “This is just great historical ignorance.”

He wrote an impassioned take on the FIFA arrests and posted it on his Facebook page: 

When they heard our chants, they called us "insane, enemies of the nation."

They arrested us, persecuted us, hunted us ... [Wednesday], unfortunately, it was necessary for the Justice Department of the United States to speak out so that the scandal of the World Cup would be faced.