Why now, who leaked the information and what could the impact be on FIFA? Those are just three intriguing questions being asked in the wake of the stunning revelations in the New York Daily News that Chuck Blazer, who strode the corridors of power at FIFA for more than a generation, turned FBI informant to spy on several of his colleagues.
The newspaper claimed that faced with a massive bill for unpaid income tax on millions of dollars of hidden earnings, Blazer agreed to cooperate undercover with an investigation by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service by secretly recording meetings on a bug hidden inside a key fob while staying at a Mayfair hotel during the London 2012 Olympics.
Many of football’s and FIFA’s most senior figures – a number of them named by the Daily News – were in London at the time. What was Blazer instructed to ask them and, more importantly, what is the FBI planning to do with the information he supplied?
One theory doing the rounds is that the leak about the former CONCACAF general secretary’s co-operation with the FBI was made simply in order to stir things up because the investigation had reached the end of the road with nothing substantial to get its teeth into.
Another far more worrying theory, both for FIFA and everyone Blazer spoke to in those recorded conversations, is that there is enough evidence for the US authorities to launch some kind of prosecution. Michael Garcia’s FIFA-commissioned report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process may be subject to strict confidential rules but the FBI does not exactly have to abide by any FIFA ethics code.
There is an almost Shakespearean plot to the whole debacle. Blazer, just to recall, was the burly, bearded whistleblower who brought down former CONCACAF boss and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, his one-time ally, following the cash-for-votes scandal in 2011, as well as Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hamman, in the process ending the latter’s bid for the FIFA presidency.
Blazer thought he was doing his moral duty to help clean up FIFA, only to have his own own footballing career ended when a damning report commissioned by the new CONCACAF regime discovered the shenanigans that had gone on behind the scenes.
The larger than life American may have prompted the biggest anti-corruption reform process in the history of FIFA but in an extraordinary case of the accuser becoming the accused, the tables turned dramatically when Blazer himself was suspended by FIFA in the fall-out from the report into the way he and Warner had managed CONCACAF’s finances for the best part of two decades.
The damage to Blazer’s reputation was there for all to see but throughout his time within FIFA’s inner sanctum, he had been one of the organisation’s most approachable and recognisable figures, often happy to court the media, this correspondent included, at important events like World Cup ballots and key elections.
While he had – and probably still has – friends and enemies in equal measure, let’s not forget Blazer’s contribution to the progress of football in his country. He played a huge role in helping the United States clinch the World Cup finals in 1994 and was a big player in the launch of Major League Soccer.
Some observers believe that the amounts Blazer pocketed were peanuts compared to the way Warner operated as CONCACAF president, not least in the latter’s dealings with Caribbean so-called colleagues.
But the problem – a rather large one – is that, to the tune of several millions dollars, whilst living a lifestyle most mere mortals cannot possible relate to, Blazer abused his power by enriching himself at the expense of his own confederation, a terrible error which, two years ago at its congress in Budapest and six months after he resigned as general secretary, sent CONCACAF officials into a fury on a day that was supposed to be all about Jeffrey Webb becoming the new confederation president. As my colleague Paul Nicholson wrote yesterday, Blazer was known as ‘Mr 10%’, referring to his cut of every marketing deal that went into the confederation.
That was then, this is now. Blazer has just been released from hospital after undergoing a long, personal battle against cancer in New York. How he got into the mess in the first place in terms of not paying his taxes will have many people scratching their heads given his canny legal background.
His career in football may be over but in a sense the legacy of it has been dramatically resurrected. What happens now? Could the information released to the FBI prompt a chain of events which might ultimately fall right at the door of FIFA? Remember the Salt Lake City probe? Who’s to say heads might not end up rolling in the same way if the US authorities have clear evidence that money laundering took place in their country by anyone connected with the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process.
According to the New York Daily News, the information in the FBI’s possession relates to 44 “high-ranking” football officials, reportedly including Alexey Sorokin (CEO of the Russian 2018 World Cup and by then head of its organising committee), Frank Lowy (head of the Australian federation and its failed 2022 bid) and Anton Baranov (assistant to Vitaly Mutko, Russian Sports Minister and FIFA exco member).
The US pays more money for broadcast rights than any other country in the world and spent millions bidding for the 2022 World Cup which they lost out to Qatar. Unlike Garcia’s report, US criminal law is not subject to FIFA’s ethics code.
If Blazer’s actions can prove fraud took place during the bidding process or in fact shows that any wrongdoing by FIFA-linked officials that in any way impacted the United States, then the fallout should not be under-estimated.
“If the Department of Justice is planning to bring a case against FIFA or any of its officials, then this is massive,” said one expert close to the case.
It is, of course, a big if…
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org