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1st trial in Swiss FIFA investigation opens in court Monday

GENEVA (AP) — Five years into a sprawling investigation of soccer corruption, the first courtroom trial in Switzerland is due to begin on Monday in a 2006 World Cup fraud case. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and German soccer great Franz Beckenbauer are listed by Switzerland's federal criminal court to testify in the trial of four soccer officials implicated in a suspect 6.7 million euros ($7.6 million) payment.

Beckenbauer, as head of the German 2006 organizing committee, is a criminal suspect in the long-running investigation though was not indicted last August for health reasons and will not stand trial. Amid fears of the spreading coronavirus, it is likely most of the star witnesses and defendants will not come to court in Bellinzona, which is close to the border with northern Italy.

Blatter is scheduled to testify on Thursday, two days after he turns 84, by video link from Zurich where he lives, his spokesman, Thomas Renggli, said on Friday. The defendants include three members of the 2006 World Cup organizing committee: Theo Zwanziger and Wolfgang Niersbach — who both served on FIFA’s executive committee after Beckenbauer — and Horst Schmidt.

The fourth is Urs Linsi, who was Blatter’s right-hand man as FIFA secretary general for five years from 2002. Swiss federal prosecutors allege Linsi, Zwanziger and Schmidt jointly committed fraud and Niersbach was complicit in fraud by misleading the organizing committee's oversight panel.

All deny wrongdoing in a case that centers on a complex money trail, claimed to be loans and repayments made in 2002 and 2005. The payments connect Beckenbauer, Germany’s soccer federation, a FIFA bank account in Switzerland, one-time FIFA power broker Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, and Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the late former Adidas executive.

Louis-Dreyfus was a part owner of Swiss marketing agency Infront which acquired some World Cup television rights. He died in 2009. Another German soccer great and former Infront executive, Günter Netzer, is listed to give evidence next Thursday.

The Swiss investigation was hampered by Qatar declining to help. “The exact purpose of the total payments … to Mohamed bin Hammam could not have been determined — also because a corresponding request for mutual legal assistance made by the (attorney general’s office) to the Qatari authorities in September 2016 remained unanswered until today,” Swiss federal prosecutors said last August when publishing indictments.

The case has tarnished the reputation of a World Cup that was a sporting and social success. It became known as Germany’s “Summer Fairytale” for restoring pride in national identity. It is unclear if a scheduled three-week trial in Switzerland will provide resolution. There is also time pressure because a statute of limitations on the case is reached in late-April.

Though Blatter, FIFA president for 17 years, is only a witness in this case, a criminal proceeding was opened against him in 2015 for separate financial management issues. The allegation removed him from office but he denies wrongdoing and has never been charged.

Swiss prosecutors who have worked on at least 25 criminal proceedings linked to FIFA indicted three men last month, including Linsi’s successor as top administrator, Jérôme Valcke. Qatari television executive Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is also president of French champion Paris Saint-Germain, was charged with inciting Valcke to commit aggravated criminal mismanagement.

A bribery allegation against al-Khelaifi was dropped when FIFA reached a settlement deal with him in January to end a criminal complaint. He had been suspected of bribing Valcke with use of a luxury villa in Italy.

The federal prosecution office has also been through turmoil due to the FIFA probe. A senior prosecutor left in 2018 despite being cleared of alleged misconduct. Attorney general Michael Lauber was removed from the case last year by the Bellinzona court after secret meetings with FIFA president Gianni Infantino were revealed.

Switzerland’s investigation started with FIFA’s criminal complaint in November 2014 about suspected money laundering in the 2018-22 World Cup bidding contests, which were won by Russia and Qatar, respectively.

No charges have been announced directly connected to those World Cup campaigns.

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