While rumors of bribes and backroom deals spanning the globe have plagued world soccer’s governing body for years, the financial crimes that finally got a law enforcement agency focused on FIFA happened not in faraway locales, but in Miami and New York, starring a former suburban soccer dad with tax trouble.
Chuck Blazer, one of the most important figures in the history of American soccer, pleaded guilty to crimes including racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion in November 2013. But his pleading remained sealed until Wednesday morning, when it was released along with more than 200 pages of other documents associated with this case.
Blazer cooperated with the federal investigation and agreed to wear a wire, according to a law enforcement source, helping the government build its case against other FIFA officials and executives with sports marketing companies in the United States and Brazil. Blazer and others were involved in schemes to collect bribes for media rights connected not to the World Cup, documents show, but to lesser soccer tournaments in the Americas.
The full effects of Wednesday’s indictments continued to ripple a day later. On Thursday, FIFA President Sepp Blatter remained defiant, claiming the corruption within his organization was isolated to “a tiny minority,” even as Michel Platini, the president of the powerful European soccer federation, called for his resignation and corporate sponsors from Visa to Anheuser-Busch to Hyundai expressed concerns over the revelations.
Blatter remains heavily favored to be reelected for a fifth term as FIFA’s president in a vote scheduled for Friday in Zurich. But he will not have the vote of U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who publicly gave his support to Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein and declared, “I think you will see a lot closer vote [Friday] than people were projecting some weeks ago.”
Blazer’s cooperation following his guilty plea may not have provided enough evidence to threaten Blatter’s status or for the government to expand its case to rumored bribes over future World Cups in Russia and Qatar . Nonetheless, his actions, both before and after his prosecution, have left the organizations that oversee soccer in the Americas reeling.
All of the FIFA officials indicted Wednesday were associated with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the umbrella organizations that collectively oversee soccer in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Blazer was the former longtime secretary general of CONCACAF. His role in the government’s investigation into FIFA was first reported in November by the New York Daily News.
“Today is a sad day,” said Richard Groff, a CONCACAF committee member and longtime U.S. Soccer official. “I’m disappointed that it appears, based on the indictments, it’s a bad day for CONCACAF.”
Blazer, 70, did not return calls to comment Wednesday and Thursday. He is hospitalized in New York dealing with unknown ailments, and he declined to talk Wednesday when a New York Times reporter visited him at his hospital.
According to the government’s complaint, Blazer abused his position at CONCACAF to earn millions in bribes from sports marketing companies seeking media rights to the Gold Cup, a tournament he helped create. From his office in Trump Tower in Manhattan, Blazer arranged wire transfers of six-figure bribes into offshore bank accounts for shell companies he controlled. One of the companies paying, documents state, was Miami-based Traffic Sports USA, whose president, Aaron Davidson, was among the indicted Wednesday.
Blazer also witnessed a Moroccan soccer official offer another FIFA official a bribe to try to win the bid for the 1998 World Cup (which failed). Years later, he accepted more than $750,000 of a $10 million bribe paid by South African soccer officials, law enforcement documents state, to land the 2010 World Cup.
An oversized man with a personality to match (his resemblance to both Santa Claus and Falstaff have been noted repeatedly in media profiles), Blazer never played soccer, according to a lengthy 2014 BuzzFeed profile. A Queens, N.Y., native who first found business success selling yellow, smiley-face buttons, he developed an interest in the world’s most popular sport when his son started playing in suburban New York in the 1970s.
He became active in U.S. Soccer circles, known for his business savvy, and he developed a strong relationship with Jack Warner, a politician from the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Warner became president of CONCACAF, and he made Blazer his general secretary. For years, Blazer benefited from an employment contract that promised him 10 percent on all CONCACAF revenue, a generous deal that earned him millions of dollars and a nickname: “Mr. 10 Percent.”
Blazer and Warner both left CONCACAF in 2011 amid controversy. A subsequent report by CONCAF’s integrity committee accused both of fraud and misuse of funds. Blazer failed to pay any taxes between 2005 and 2010, drawing the attention of the IRS. He paid $1.9 million in restitution in 2013, documents show.
If the information released this week is the extent of what the government can get from Blazer, there are still many avenues for investigators both here and abroad. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and professor at Smith College, expressed doubt the scandal will be confined solely to soccer officials in the Americas.
“This will gradually spread to other continents,” Zimbalist said. “I don’t know how long it will take, because that depends on other political considerations. But there’s definitely a cancer in FIFA, and I don’t think it was just confined to CONCACAF.”
Nikos Passas, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University who has studied international corruption and law enforcement, was less sure.
“The hope is that this is going to get the ball rolling,” Passos said. “But there is no certainty.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.