RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Ricardo Teixeira has dominated Brazilian soccer for so long that, like many of the best players, he is known by just one name.
They call him the “cartola,” literally the “top hat,” a title given to football bosses that instills respect and fear in equal measure and can carry more than a hint of shadiness.
Teixeira’s critics hope the hat may finally be slipping from the head of the man who has been chief of Brazil’s football confederation for 22 years and leads the local organizing committee for the 2014 World Cup despite a slew of corruption allegations against him.
A federal police investigation launched this month threatens to shed new light on reports that Teixeira, a member of world soccer body FIFA’s ruling executive committee, took millions of dollars in bribes from a sports marketing firm.
That comes as he also faces chilly political winds from Brazil’s presidential palace and growing concern over the country’s lagging, over-budget preparations for the World Cup.
Teixeira’s critics say his role as the face of the 2014 tournament, with influence over where public funds are spent, risks becoming a major embarrassment for Brazil at an event meant to showcase its rise to developed-world status.
“Football is for the people and the people are paying for his individual actions,” Romario, the legendary former striker who played a starring role in Brazil’s 1994 World Cup title, told Reuters in an interview.
“If he responds to the questions that millions of Brazilians want to ask, it will be good for the World Cup and things could start to move forward,” added Romario, now a federal congressman who has unsuccessfully called on Teixeira to testify before Congress.
Police are investigating allegations that Teixeira, 64, laundered money from bribes he is suspected of receiving in the 1990s along with two other high-ranking FIFA officials.
That follows separate allegations this year, also being investigated by police, that he oversaw a scheme to divert public funds from a 2008 Brazil friendly match.
Teixeira denies the allegations against him and has blamed the British media — the BBC first reported he took bribes — of sour grapes after England lost its bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The Brazilian Football Confederation, known as the CBF, declined requests to comment for this article.
Until this year, Teixeira could count on his warm ties with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s jovial, football-loving former president. But Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, has made little secret of her disapproval of the cartola.
She was reportedly horrified when Teixeira did not invite Brazil soccer great Pele, a global sporting icon, to the preliminary World Cup draw in Rio de Janeiro in July. In what amounted to a public humiliation for Teixeira, she hurriedly appointed Pele as Brazil’s honorary World Cup ambassador.
The first woman to lead Brazil has taken a tough stance against unethical behavior by her ministers, five of whom have been forced to resign this year. The latest cabinet member in the spotlight is Sports Minister Orlando Silva, who denies accusations that he skimmed money from sports programs and took delivery of wads of cash in the ministry’s garage.
A rapidly expanding middle class in Brazil has become less tolerant of the corruption and nepotism that have for long plagued politics and the sport Brazilians refer to as the “beautiful game.” That has helped fuel match-day protests this year where thousands of fans of different teams have found common ground under the slogan “Ricardo Teixeira out!”
Rousseff has effectively frozen Teixeira out of negotiations with FIFA about legislative changes needed ahead of the World Cup, an official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters. On her trip to Europe this month, Rousseff made it clear to FIFA executives, including General Secretary Jerome Valcke, that she does not have confidence in Teixeira, the official said.
“Dilma told them: only deal with me,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Barring scandalous new revelations or the unlikely event that he is arrested, it is hard to see how Teixeira could be forced out of the World Cup organizing committee, which like the CBF is a private body.
“It’s an issue for FIFA ... we won’t interfere in this process,” said Alcino Reis Rocha, special soccer adviser at Brazil’s sports ministry. He added that Teixeira’s committee does not directly receive funds from the federal government.
Teixeira has said he will leave the CBF after the World Cup, and he is widely believed to be planning a run for the FIFA presidency in 2015.
His woes come at a time when the budget for the 2014 tournament is ballooning as organizers try to make up for a slow start on stadiums and other infrastructure, raising concern about misuse of taxpayer money.
Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s best-known football journalists, said Teixeira is suffering one of his worst stretches since becoming the head of the CBF in 1989. If the pressure keeps mounting, Kfouri said Teixeira could decide to relinquish his World Cup role to avoid further scrutiny.
“He invested a lot in his relations with Lula and didn’t expect Dilma to be this cold with him,” said Kfouri, whom Teixeira has hit with more than 50 lawsuits for his reporting about him.
Teixeira didn’t help his image with a startlingly blunt interview with Brazilian magazine Piaui in July in which he called the British “a bunch of pirates” as he sipped champagne in a luxury hotel in Zurich, where FIFA is headquartered.
He went on to boast that he could “get away with anything” at the 2014 World Cup, “the most slippery, Machiavellian things. Denying press credentials, barring access, changing game schedules” to thwart his perceived enemies in the media.
The new police investigation in Brazil into allegations of money-laundering and illegal money transfers is likely to focus on a Lichtenstein-based company called Sanud, which was highlighted in the BBC report and as long ago as 2000 was linked to Teixeira by a Brazilian congressional inquiry.
Brazilian prosecutors say Teixeira used the firm as a shell company in a sophisticated money-laundering operation.
Swiss prosecutors investigated the collapsed sports marketing firm ISL but the case was settled after they said two FIFA officials — whose names have not been divulged — paid back 5.5 million Swiss francs ($6.1 million). The BBC reported that the officials were Teixeira and Joao Havelange, the former FIFA president who is also Teixeira’s former father-in-law.
Those who want to see Teixeira stripped of his World Cup responsibilities hope the Brazilian police will have access to documents in the Swiss case that have not been made public.
But even Teixeira’s critics are not optimistic about him calling it quits any time soon. Nor do they expect the murky world of Brazilian soccer to become a bastion of ethics even if Teixeira suddenly left the scene.
Marcos Alvito, an anthropology professor at the Federal Fluminense University in Rio and a member of the National Association of Fans, said corruption in Brazilian soccer was rooted in the often incestuous relationships between the CBF, television, construction firms and politicians.
“This is the system that has to be dismantled. But it’s a powerful system,” he said.
Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca and Brian Winter; Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray