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'He said in football there were 2 types of people - those who pay bribes and those who accept them'

Buzzfeed investigative reporter Ken Bensinger chats about his acclaimed new book on the Fifa corruption scandal.

Chuck Blazer was a key figure in the Fifa corruption scandal.
Chuck Blazer was a key figure in the Fifa corruption scandal.
Image: Getty Images

THE ARREST OF several Fifa officials back in 2015 was a sensational news story.

While it was not the first time members of the association had been accused of bribery, many within soccer felt the organisation was too powerful to ever be properly held accountable for their actions.

The extraordinary fallout following this controversy sent shockwaves through the world of football, with Sepp Blatter ultimately stepping down as president of Fifa and subsequently receiving a six-year ban from the sport, while not many other senior figures associated with the organisation survived the scandal with their reputations intact.

A critically acclaimed new book by Buzzfeed Investigative Reporter Ken Bensinger, entitled ‘Red Card: Fifa and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports’ takes a detailed look at the IRS and FBI’s painstaking investigation into the world of football administration, which has for decades been rife with corruption. The story provides a comprehensive re-telling of the lengths these investigators went to, in order to expose the wrongdoings of countless senior officials.

The book is in equal parts entertaining, depressing and insightful in painting a picture of the many Machiavellian and self-serving figures who helped run the sport for many years. It also shows both the slyness and at times, sheer incompetence of these individuals. Consider the following amusing passage:

‘On Sunday, Jack Warner, out of jail on bond, released two video-taped interviews he’d conducted, dressed in the lime green colours of his political party. He, too, accused the United States of conspiring against soccer, claiming that “no one gives them the right to do what they are doing.”

‘As proof of the plot, Warner held up a printout of a news article from an American publication: “Fifa Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup in United States,” the headline read.

“If Fifa is so bad, why is it the US wants to keep the World Cup?” Warner asked, an incredulous look on his face. “Take your losses, like a man, and go.” But Warner’s allegations soon turned him into a punchline when it was revealed that the article he had cited had come from The Onion, a satirical publication.”

We chat to Bensinger below about his new book…

How did the book come about?

book

I’m an investigative reporter and not necessarily a sports specialist. I’ve done sports stories from time to time but it isn’t the only thing I cover. Most of the stories I’ve done are not about sports, so in that sense, it was a departure.

When I started with Buzzfeed News in 2014, I had a story list with different ideas. Towards the top was to write a profile of [the late American football administrator who held a number of positions at the top level of the game] Chuck Blazer. He’d been on my radar for some time, because he’s such a larger than life figure, but because of the quirks of football and the fact that the US doesn’t care for the sport that much, he’d kind of escaped a lot of public attention. He just wasn’t a really well-known figure here or anywhere for that matter.

I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, my previous job with the LA Times I wanted to do it, but the limitations of a print newspaper with [a word count of] 2,000 made it [difficult].

So I convinced the editors in my new job to let me do a big long profile of Blazer that ran right before the last World Cup in June 2014. It was one of the first thorough deep looks at him and his legacy. After that, I moved on to a totally different topic to do with immigration policy in the US and it was nothing at all to do with football.

A year later, May 2015, we have these infamous arrests in Zurich. Within a couple of days, it comes out that Chuck Blazer was one of the principle co-operators in the case, wearing a wire and providing information to the Department of Justice for their case.

So it suddenly made me the worldwide expert on Chuck Blazer and football corruption, which I wasn’t, but everyone thought I was.

I’ve been wanting to write a book for a long time. But typically for a journalist writing a book, it has to be a labour of love. With the wife and kids and mortgage, it didn’t feel like I could lose money on a book, so this was an opportunity to do something on a topic I’m very interested in, where at the very least, it wouldn’t be a financial disaster for me.

So I looked at it, put together a proposal and sold the book within three or four weeks. Soon thereafter, a movie option was sold to Warner Brothers to make a feature film about it as well.

What most surprised you during the research?

World Cup Trophy File Photo The World Cup trophy (file pic). Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The thing about Fifa corruption is that people are not surprised it is corrupt, but it is surprising to see how widespread it is. The phrase that the prosecutors used was ‘endemic’.

The question we’ve all thought about if you follow the game at the very highest level — cash for votes and that sort of thing — as I reported, it was at every level. From the top in Zurich all the way down to youth leagues in Paraguay, there are these mirror instances of the same sort of corruption. That was surprising to me.

The other thing was how incredibly unhelpful so many people were and how uninterested they were in telling the story. So it took a lot of knocking on a lot of doors to get people to open up and let me understand how this all happened.

Another thing that’s surprising is how many people think they know what happened or what this case is all about and they’re just totally wrong. That’s been interesting to see — people think they get it and they don’t. That’s been interesting to watch.

One of the things that’s striking about the case is that there were no real whistleblowers. People only owned up to their wrongdoing after they got caught. It’s a pretty damning indictment on people who run football, isn’t it?

That’s right. Some people have been called ‘whistleblowers’ in this. Chuck Blazer, for example, has been called a whistleblower. I strongly object to the use of that term. The only reason Chuck Blazer ends up co-operating and wearing a wire and helping the investigation is because they had his back to the wall. It wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart. He co-operated because the prosecutors gave him a choice: ‘You either help us or go right to jail.’ This is a guy who hadn’t paid or even filed taxes in more than 15 years.

The idea that he was coming to them of his own free will and being a nice guy who was trying to save the sport is just factually inaccurate.

So I think it reflects a culture of people in the sport who liked it as it was — the way the corruption benefited them and they could all get rich off the sport. The people who were involved didn’t want it to change. That’s the nature of that beast. It was a really cosy world for those people. For them, one of the worst things that could happen was for the DOJ [United States Department of Justice] to stick its nose in their business.

Who are the heroes of this story?

Soccer - FIFA Inspection Visit to Downing Street Then-Chilean FA president Harold Mayne-Nicholls pictured in 2010. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

I think you’re not going to find too many heroes on the football administration side.

Blazer told investigators that in football there were two types of people — those who pay bribes and those who accept them. I think that’s a little bit of an over-simplification. There’s a third category — those who know bribes are being taken, turn a blind eye and don’t say anything about it. That category is pretty large as well — people who, because of their own interests, are not willing to blow a whistle or urged to say anything.

So it’s hard to find people who actually stood up for the sport. There were a couple. I don’t think they are heroes of my story per se, but they are certainly interesting and relevant. For example, there was a guy who was head of the Chilean Football Federation by the name of Harold Mayne-Nicholls. His name came up because he was one of the few guys who refused to take a bribe. They tried to give him bribes and they wouldn’t take it. That South American football mafia kind of ex-communicated him because they wouldn’t take a bribe.

It was a bit like that movie Serpico, where it’s not optional — you’re supposed to take a bribe. Apparently, the head of the Uruguayan Football Association went the same way. For the real heroes, you’ve got to point towards law enforcement.

The standout person is a guy named Steve Berryman, who is this IRS agent in California, who is about as far from all this action as possible. He’s someone who grew up in England. His father was in the airforce, he was stationed over there, so he grew up playing football and loving the sport. He came back to the US and has followed the sport ever since then. He’s a big Liverpool fan and he got involved in the case after it was about a year old. He’s the one who got them Blazer and he’s the one as an IRS agent who has to look at taxes.

FBI agents already on the case — it’s part of American law enforcement that the FBI can’t just look at someone’s taxes. Very few people can look at tax returns, so the FBI wasn’t actually aware of Blazer’s tax problems until the IRS got involved. So he brought them Chuck Blazer. And he didn’t just do that — he also brought them incredibly sophisticated money-tracing techniques, which allowed them to piece together where all the bribes had been paid. Who received them? How long? Et cetera.

In the trial, he did three days of testimony, which is a long time. And when it was over, one of the defence attorneys — despite being on opposite sides — came up and gave him a hug and told him what a wonderful job he did, which is a testament to how important he was in this case. Several people on both sides told me that there would be no case if not for Steve Berryman.

Would it be fair to say modern soccer flourishing and corruption are inextricably linked?

Soccer World Cup 1978: Argentina vs. The Netherlands 3:1 The 1978 World Cup saw the introduction of commercial sponsorship. Source: DPA/PA Images

I think it kind of is. There’s sort of an original sin in modern football — in the early 1970s, João Havelange was the first non-European president of Fifa. Havelange is Brazilian and has I think a noble desire to democratise the sport and bring into to the developing world. The parts of the world where they don’t play the sport much and really don’t have the opportunity to — Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, these kind of places that didn’t really have the sport.

What he very quickly discovered is he didn’t have any money to pay for that. Fifa had revenue at that time, which largely consisted of ticket sales from the World Cup, international friendlies and that sort of thing. That was it — there was very little TV money, there was basically no sponsorship money, a few drips of advertising, but really, it was ticket sales. It wasn’t enough money to pay for this type of programme. He had made this campaign promise and knew if he didn’t deliver it, he would be a one-term president.

So he had to find a way to pay for it, and the way to pay for it was to open Fifa up to huge commercial sponsorship, so that’s when Adidas and Coca Cola get involved. They sponsor the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and other companies are providing cover and helping to protect him, give him the resources he needs to deliver.

And so it’s a bit of a Faustian bargain — you owe the devil, now the corporate interests have a massive stake in the game. And it doesn’t take long before bribes start happening. Money starts coming in, people start realising the commercial value of the sport, then people start demanding under-the-table payments. And I think it dates back to then when the corruption started, [leading to] 40-plus years of this commercial aspect and this corruption. And I think unwinding that is going to be really tough.

How did Jack Warner [the former Vice President of FIFA and President of CONCACAF] get away with his egregious behaviour for so long and how does he continue to do so to an extent?

Soccer - CONCACAF Gold Cup 2005 - Group B - USA v Canada - Qwest Field Former CONCACAF President Jack Warner. Source: EMPICS Sport

Warner has been fighting extradition since the get-go. He was indicted the same time as the others. He was arrested and detained briefly in Trinidad and Tobago, where he’s from. He spent a night in jail there and was released on bond. He has been fighting extradition ever since, so going on two years of fighting extradition.

He hasn’t won but he hasn’t lost either. There are going to be hearings in the fall and he could get extradited — if he gets extradited, it’s going to be a huge story.

Maybe he’ll plead guilty, but he strikes me as the kind of guy who’s going to fight. That would lead to one heck of a trial. We can all agree that once you’ve got Warner in a court room, it’s going to be a spectacle, it’s going to be a show with a lot of noise.

For a lot of people, he symbolises the peak of Fifa corruption. The Platonic ideal of a corrupt soccer official seems like it’s Jack Warner. Particularly when you look at some of the really dirty ones who are no longer with us — the one that immediately springs to mind is [former president of the Argentine Football Association] Julio Grondona. He was equally repugnant and horrendous in his corruption. He died [in 2014], so they couldn’t get him.

So Warner is one of the last remaining great prizes from that generation. But other figures who didn’t get quite as much attention turned out to be just as filthy. One that stands out to me was Jeffrey Webb, who was Jack Warner’s successor [as President of CONCACAF].

Webb was really corrupt in all kinds of ways. The irony with him is he went around telling everyone how clean he was. He campaigned for CONCACAF President on being clean and being a reformer. But the whole time he’s saying this, he’s involved in some of the worst filth in the history of the sport.

Would you be optimistic about the new Fifa regime? They have promised change, but people on the outside understandably tend to be quite sceptical when they hear that.

(SP)RUSSIA-MOSCOW-68TH FIFA CONGRESS-PRESS CONFERENCE Current Fifa President Gianni Infantino has vowed to instigate change within the organisation. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

I think there’s no question the sport is trying to make steps towards being cleaner. I think it is such a deeply ingrained culture that it’s sort of fighting against itself. We saw evidence of that recently when it turned out the entire Ghanaian football association had to be disbanded because of the depth of the corruption. There was video-tape evidence of these people taking bribes, including the president of the association. So it’s a reminder that these things are really still deeply a part of the fabric of this sport.

I’m not sure Gianni Infantino is a saint or someone who’s going to save the game. I think there’s maybe a hope that capitalism will save the day.

There’s the fact that the united bid of the US, Canada and Mexico was chosen over Morocco — I wouldn’t call it a triumph, but I would say it’s an indication that the old Fifa corruption may be evaporating in favour of one that’s maybe more interested in just pure profit.

After seeing Qatar win the 2022 tournament, it would have been reasonable to expect that Morocco would have won that bid. The fact they didn’t suggests that perhaps there’s a new focus.

You convey well in the book the painstaking work that went into the FBI investigation and how easily it could have fallen through. What was the biggest challenge facing the investigators?

The Baur au Lac Hotel A view of the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, where several officials were arrested on suspicion of bribery. Source: Martyn Ziegler

I think one of them was that they had to be ultra secret. Because it’s CONCACAF, it was an international investigation. So a lot of the people they were targeting were in countries outside of the US and some of them are countries that don’t extradite their citizens.

There was a concern that if any word of the investigation got out to anybody, it could blow the whole thing. So they had to work without a lot of the co-operation they would normally get from other countries. They would have been asking Switzerland and Brazil for financial records that would help them, but in this case, with really only one or two exceptions, they had to keep it ultra-secret and not ask anyone for any help, so that was sort of like doing it with their hands tied behind their back. It made the case longer and much more difficult. But in a way, it may have galvanised them and made the case that much more thorough, because it was sort of a higher bar they had to jump over, they had to be double, triple sure that they were doing it right.

The World Cup is taking place in Russia right now. There’s so much baggage with that successful bid and a number of people who backed it are now disgraced. Should people at least feel conflicted in supporting the event? Or does the average person’s love of soccer simply override everything else?

I think soccer fandom is pretty compulsive. People love the sport so much they’re willing to overlook the black marks of the game. People say: ‘Fifa makes me sick, but I love to watch the World Cup.’ We’ve seen it over and over again. We’ve seen World Cups held in Argentina when there was a military dictatorship going on there and literally torturing people less than two kilometres from the stadium where the final was held. People seem to be able to hold their nose and watch the matches.

I think there are fans who have said: ‘That’s it. I’m done. I’m not going to watch it anymore.’ And there’s definitely some small percentage of that.

I think there’s a third category of fans, which is sort of like: ‘I’m covering my ears, I don’t want to hear anything about the corruption. I don’t care. I just want to appreciate the game. That’s what I’m seeing.’

So I guess those that would like reform would like to say: ‘Look, just boycott this. Just don’t watch the games.’ There’s no question that a viewership decline in the World Cup would do more than anything to change Fifa, but I don’t really anticipate it. The interest in the sport is just growing and it’s becoming more and more popular.

Finally, what do you make of Sepp Blatter showing up in Russia at the World Cup as a guest of Vladimir Putin recently?

Imago 20180622 Sepp Blatter, left, pictured watching the recent Brazil-Costa Rica World Cup match. Source: Imago/PA Images

I think it’s kind of both shocking and not at all surprising. It’s a strong reminder of who’s in charge here. This is Vladimir Putin’s world and this is his tournament. The fact is, just a few days ago, he’s sitting in the presidential box with Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president.

And a week later, he’s with Sepp Blatter, who’s banned from the sport for six years and who isn’t supposed to be there. Somebody was saying ‘maybe he’ll buy tickets and go by himself,’ as he’s not supposed to go in an official capacity. But what’s more official than sitting in the presidential box with the president of the host country?

To me, it’s just Putin saying: ‘I can do whatever I want. People cheated to get this World Cup. It sparked a criminal investigation and brought many people down. It gave Gianni Infantino his job. But I don’t care. I’m going to invite the guy who was thrown out of the sport.’ It’s a big middle finger to the whole world as far as I can tell.

‘Red Card: FIFA and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports’ by Ken Bensinger is published by Profile Books. More info here.

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Paul Fennessy

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