Bribery probe leaves Brazilian football in turmoil

TALES AZZONI AP Sports Writer Published:

SAO PAULO (AP) -- Brazilian prosecutors are investigating whether officials from a first-division club received money to deliberately get the team relegated and keep a more popular club in the top flight, leaving Brazilian football under increased scrutiny with the World Cup just months away.

The case involving Portuguesa's relegation after a four-point penalty that was assessed after the season ended has already led to legal battles, and the latest allegations have only caused more turmoil at a time when the world of football steadily turns its attention to Brazil.

Portuguesa was punished for fielding a suspended player, and prosecutors now say they are looking into whether some club officials knew that the player wasn't eligible but deliberately withheld that information from those responsible for the team selection.

"We have to know if someone made money out of this, and we have strong signs leading to this," Sao Paulo public prosecutor Roberto Senise told Brazilian media, adding that eight people have already been interrogated in the case. "It seems someone allowed the player to play despite knowing about the suspension."

Defending champion Fluminense had originally finished in the relegation zone, but Portuguesa's four-point deduction allowed the more traditional club to stay in the first division.

A legal dispute is still ongoing, however, which could prevent the new season from starting on time. Now police could get involved as well, if the bribery allegations are confirmed.

It's the latest ordeal to damage the image of Brazilian football. The country has been marked by problems in its World Cup preparations -- with host city Curitiba still in danger of being dropped -- and a flood of fan violence plagued domestic matches throughout 2013.

Portuguesa only used the suspended player in the final round, and the club said it had not been properly informed of the suspension by the national federation. However, prosecutors said they have evidence showing that someone at the club knew the player wasn't eligible.

Senise said more details can't be released because the investigation is ongoing. He did not specifically accuse Fluminense or any other club of offering money to a Portuguesa employee.

This year's Brazilian league is scheduled to start on April 20, but the national federation has to release the match schedule in a few weeks. It says it will abide to the sports tribunal decision that relegated Portuguesa and kept Fluminense in the first division, but there are court rulings in Sao Paulo saying the federation must keep Portuguesa in the championship this year, with appeals pending.

Flamengo, Brazil's most popular club, also lost four points for using a player irregularly in the final round last year, dropping it to just outside the relegation zone. The club confirmed Tuesday that it is asking the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reverse the sports tribunal's decision, afraid that it may end up in the second division depending on the outcome of the court actions related to Portuguesa.

Portuguesa last week accused the federation of offering a loan on the condition that it accepted last year's sports tribunal decision and ceased all legal actions to remain in the first division.

Fluminense had become the first defending champion to be relegated in the Brazilian league.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni