BY STEPHEN WADE and MAURICIO SAVARESE
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Marco Polo del Nero was suspended Friday as the head of the Brazilian soccer confederation, a move that could bring him closer to facing trial in the United States on charges of racketeering and money laundering.
FIFA said Del Nero was under an ethics investigation and has been banned for 90 days from all soccer activities.
Del Nero fled Zurich in May 2015 when other FIFA colleagues were arrested. They included Jose Maria Marin, who was at the time the head of the Brazilian confederation, known as the CBF. Marin and two other South American soccer officials have been on trial in New York on the same charges that Del Nero could eventually face.
“As many Brazilians that love soccer, my hope is that he is banned for good,” soccer great Romario — now a Brazilian federal senator — wrote on his Facebook page.
“Del Nero has already had his crimes exposed along those of other crooks like Jose Maria Marin, who is in jail in the United States, and (former CBF president) Ricardo Teixeira who is still on the loose in Brazil. They all used CBF to get illegally rich.”
Del Nero has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
FIFA had failed to ban Del Nero until Friday, through FIFA President Gianni Infantino has been questioned openly about him in recent days.
Infantino was photographed at last year’s Olympics receiving a Brazilian soccer shirt from Del Nero, and reporters questioned him about Del Nero at the World Cup draw earlier this month in Moscow.
“So whatever comes out of these trials (in New York), we will deal with it,” Infantino said. “We have ethics committees, disciplinary committees. They will deal with these questions. It’s not for the FIFA president to deal with them. We have institutions for that.”
Del Nero has not traveled from Brazil in the last several years, fearing arrest and extradition to the United States if he does. Brazil has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but seldom sends its own citizens abroad for trial.
Brazil’s team is a strong favorite to win next year’s World Cup in Russia, but many doubt Del Nero will travel to cheer on one of soccer’s most storied teams.
The CBF named vice president Antonio Carlos Nunes to fill in for Del Nero, but did not offer an immediate comment on Del Nero’s suspension.
Del Nero has been hunkered down in Brazil in part because Brazilian law does not ban private or commercial corruption. There needs to be a government body or official involved, or taxpayer money.
Those on trial in New York were charged with violating United States laws involving the banking system.
Del Nero has survived by avoiding the problems that trapped Carlos Nuzman, the head of last year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Nuzman was arrested two months ago in Brazil, partly for trying to hamper an investigation into his Brazilian tax declaration. He was eventually charged with money laundering, and running a criminal organization.
Brazilian and French authorities say Nuzman helped channel $2 million in bribes to help win votes from International Olympic Committee members to stage the 2016 Olympics.
Del Nero’s name has come up in the New York corruption trial.
Prosecution witness Jose Hawilla, a Brazilian sports marketing executive, brought up Del Nero several times earlier this month in testimony. He included Del Nero among top South American soccer officials who needed to be bribed to secure lucrative contracts to large tournaments.
In one taped conversation, jurors heard Hawilla in an exchange talk about a $900,000 payment apparently owed to Del Nero or Marin.
Del Nero has also been openly criticized by Brazilian national team coach Tite, who is credited with making Brazil a World Cup favorite.
Tite signed an open letter opposing Del Nero before he was named coach last year. Since then, he’s softened his stance but still opposes Del Nero.
“This is the best way I can contribute to soccer, offering what I know,” he said after being named coach. “The ideas of transparency and democratization remain as my principles.”
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.
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