Wither Jack Warner—a/k/a “Trinidad Jack”—the now indicted and disgraced former president of CONCACAF—North America and the Caribbean’s soccer governing body—a former senior FIFA official and member of Trinidad and Tobago’s parliament. In the span of a week, he’s seen his face splashed across front pages around the world, was drop-kicked by now-resigning FIFA president Sepp Blatter and been reduced to citing satirical stories in The Onion in his own defense against charges of corruption.
In the time it took for a synchronized Swiss-American soccer sting to take down Warner and his cronies, Jack went from being the world’s soccer Robin Hood (in his own mind, at least) to the sport’s equivalent of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. He and Blatter are now on the outs—with Warner threatening to go public with further details of FIFA corruption, announcing to Trinidadians in a political ad that he’d “no longer keep secrets” on behalf of former cronies.
Is Warner a scamp? No doubt. A crook? We’ll see. But before consigning him to the ash heap of fútbol history, it’s worth recalling what was wrong with the game before he and Blatter came along: It was run like an exclusive, all-male, all-white country club. And Warner—antics and all—was key to breaking down the barriers of the sport for countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It’s why he still maintains—even as prosecutors press ahead with charges—a reservoir of goodwill among those who sense that he—and the much-maligned Blatter—have done more good than bad for the sport.
From 1982-1998 the World Cup—the globe’s biggest sporting spectacle—was held in Spain, Mexico, Italy, the U.S. and France—with only Mexico representing a non-European/U.S. host country. But from 2002-2014, South Korea/Japan, Germany, South Africa and Brazil were the hosts—with Germany, the lone European nation, sharing the wealth and glory with the rest of the world. It’s what Blatter promised (amid allegations of bribery, even then) when he was elected FIFA president in 1998 after campaigning on a platform of reform and expansion: to even the playing field—literally—so that World Cups would be played in all corners of the globe.
And to hold up their end of the bargain, seemingly all that smaller countries were asked to do was go along—vote the way they want you to and there’ll be an envelope waiting for you in your hotel room. It’s what’s said to be how South Africa got its World Cup—Warner allegedly served as conduit for $10 million in bribes. And it’s the kind of scheme, reports The Post’s Michael Miller, that found Warner explaining away $40,000 payouts to each member of the Caribbean Football Union from a Qatari businessman by remarking that “our business is our business.” As a business model, it was a relatively easy sell to soccer federations from countries accustomed to dictatorial regimes, military juntas and not-so-benign strongmen at home. Greasing the gears of bureaucracy was, presumably, a small price to pay to avoid reverting to an era when smaller (read: non-European) federations had less money, less exposure and less chance of participating meaningfully in the World Cup at any level—junior, senior, women’s or men’s.
It’s no one’s idea of transparent governance, but it’s likely why so many non-European nations still backed Blatter in last week’s FIFA vote, that Blatter won, despite swirling controversy. As the Nigerian Football Association’s Amaju Pinnick explained, “Blatter feels Africa, he sees Africa and he has imparted so much” to the cause of “equity, fairness and equality among the nations. We don’t want to experiment” with someone else at FIFA’s helm.
During its tenure, the now unraveling Blatter regime—Warner included—expanded the number of World Cup berths going to Africa, Asia and the CONCACAF region while also leading a public campaign to combat racism in football, which still persists, and oversaw the growth in popularity of the women’s world cup—which, as the New York Times’ Juliet Macur notes, “shepherded the women’s game to a place it might never have reached without him.” Europeans and the U.S. may express righteous indignation about FIFA corruption, but it’s easy enough for Warner or Blatter to spin that as evidence that the traditional soccer heavyweights are resistant to sharing the soccer spoils with smaller nations.
Trinidadians, meanwhile, have long lived with Warner’s wiles and caution outsiders not to underestimate him. He may not be a silver-tongued Einstein, but he knows his constituencies—even now he’s found a way to blame everything from U.S. and European bitterness over the ’22 Cup going to Qatar to a global Zionist conspiracy for his present troubles. His posture, to be sure, is overwrought and hateful. But as Trinidadian journalist Lasana Liburd notes, Warner remains a “fantastic salesman.” He just about killed Trinidad and Tobago football, especially in the aftermath of its 2006 World Cup appearance in Germany. He’s elevated ticket-scalping to an art form and bilked the players on Trinidad’s team. For his country’s fans, the game is in tatters. And for smaller countries, in general, he and Blatter may have undone whatever good they ever did. But for the football faithful in many previously overlooked nations, Jack was tolerated, if not admired, because he could always portray himself as a man of the people. Now he’s on the outside looking in and the world’s soccer underdogs may never have another champion, no matter how flawed.