Interim Spanish federation head defends 'friend' Villar

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The new interim head of Spain's football federation defended Angel Maria Villar on Wednesday, saying he'd bet his life that his "friend" and the man he has replaced is innocent of corruption charges.

While Villar remains in prison without bail awaiting the outcome of a criminal investigation, the new federation president is Juan Luis Larrea, the body's treasurer under Villar for three decades.

Larrea backed his old boss a day after Villar was suspended from his job for a year by Spain's top sports authority, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.

"I will never say that I am not his (Villar's) friend," Larrea said at the federation's general assembly after being named Villar's replacement. "I completely trust that the federation has been run correctly."

Larrea will also have his chance to defend Villar in front of the National Court judge who denied Villar bail and kept him in jail. Larrea has been summoned to answer the questions of Judge Santiago Pedraz in a Madrid court on Thursday.

Villar, also FIFA 's senior vice president and a vice president of UEFA, was arrested last week along with his son Gorka Villar, Spanish federation vice president Juan Padron, and the secretary of the regional federation of Tenerife, Ramon Hernandez. Police accuse them of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption, and falsifying documents.

With Villar suspended, federation statues dictated that the job of interim president fell to Larrea as the longest-serving board member, and he must steer Spanish soccer through a crisis.

Besides being in charge of federation finances, Larrea has been the official running Spain's national team since 1993. He has accompanied the team on six World Cups and six European Championships, helping oversee its victories at the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 Euros.

The 64-year-old Larrea, a banker, is also the president of the regional football federation of Guipuzcoa, a province of the northern Basque Country. He joined the national federation's board as treasurer in 1988, the same year Villar was elected president.

"(This week) has been very difficult," Larrea told Spanish national television. "It's as if I had an arm cut off. I have had a very close relationship with Angel (Maria Villar)."

Villar, 67, has been at the heart of both FIFA and UEFA since the 1990s. He has worked closely with international soccer leaders who have since been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department, and was singled out for questionable conduct in the 2014 FIFA report on the World Cup bidding process.

Spain's Higher Council of Sport voted unanimously on Tuesday to suspend Villar and federation vice president Padron for one year. Council president Jose Ramon Lete left open the possibility of revising that suspension depending on developments of the ongoing investigation, called "Operation Soule."

Villar, his son, and Padron were denied bail last week and transferred from a police jail to the Soto del Real prison after being questioned by Judge Pedraz. The judge cited flight risks after detailing how Villar allegedly misappropriated private and public funds "at least since 2009."

Prosecutors allege that Villar used his influence as federation president to funnel private and public funds into regional federations in exchange for votes to remain in power for eight consecutive terms.

Villar is also suspected of using his control of the television rights for Spain's friendly matches to secure economic benefits for his son Gorka, a sports lawyer who has worked for South American soccer body CONMEBOL under three presidents who were all implicated in corruption cases.

In Villar's absence, Larrea presided over the general assembly of the federation, which had been postponed from last week after police raided the national headquarters, several regional federations, and private properties.

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