By Rosalba O’Brien
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The head of South America’s soccer federation swore that the corruption cases that have rocked it in recent years would “never again” happen, as the organization described itself as a victim and pledged to try and recoup stolen funds.
Allegations of high-level corruption and criminal misconduct have buffeted world soccer since 2015, when several dozen soccer officials, mainly from Latin America, were indicted in the United States on corruption-related charges.
Three former presidents of CONMEBOL are among those indicted, including 88-year-old Nicolas Leoz who was head of the South American confederation for 27 years from 1986 and remains under house arrest while he faces an extradition request from U.S. authorities.
Delegates of CONMEBOL, gathered in Chilean capital Santiago for their annual conference on Wednesday, heard from lawyers how “hundreds of millions of dollars” meant for soccer development had been diverted to third-party bank accounts.
Documents were displayed showing bank transactions of ex-members that could not be accounted for.
Officials said CONMEBOL had been a “victim” of corrupt practices and promised that it was a reformed organization with new people and new rules, such as the clear registration of payments.
“Today is a historic day for South American football…what happened will never again happen in our federation,” said Paraguayan Alejandro Dominguez, who was elected president last year after CONMEBOL was decimated by the arrest of its top officials.
The phrase ‘never more’, or ‘nunca mas’ in Spanish, has strong resonances in South America, where it was used in the 1980s by panels investigating past human rights abuses.
CONMEBOL has decided that it would formally try to recoup the missing money, said Monserrat Jimenez, CONMEBOL’s Legal Director.
“I am convinced that CONMEBOL will recover that money and it will go to where it should always have gone, the development of football,” said Dominguez.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was also present at the conference, said the documents proved that CONMEBOL was moving on.
“It’s passed through some very difficult times, but it’s over now,” he said.
(Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Toby Davis)