excerpt from Ken Bensinger's new book Red Card:
How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports
2010, American law enforcement officials opened an investigation
into corruption in international soccer, and in particular within
FIFA, the Swiss nonprofit that oversees the sport around the
globe. Working in secret, they flipped American soccer official
Chuck Blazer at the end of 2011 after discovering he had failed to
pay taxes for years. In this lightly adapted excerpt from Red
Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports
Scandal, the small team of federal prosecutors
and agents from the IRS and FBI begin their work with Blazer,
their crucial first cooperator. The boisterous New Yorker, famous
for his huge size and bushy white beard, would go on to wear a
wire and help build the case, which remained clandestine until it
exploded into public view in May 2015, with the sensational arrest
of a group of soccer officials in Zurich.
from the FBI have interviewed members of Englands failed 2018 World
Cup bid as part of an investigation by the American law-enforcement
agency into alleged corruption, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
Dec. 7, 2011, article from British newspaper
the Telegraph was full of details about the soccer investigation
that were supposed to be secret, certainly not splashed across the
pages of a London broadsheet. It noted that American law enforcement
had met with members of the failed English World Cup bid committee
in November, that they were investigating possible foul play
associated with World Cup voting as well as the events that had
occurred in Port of Spain, where Caribbean soccer officials had been
accused of taking cash bribes, then bringing the money into the US
without properly declaring it. It said the authorities were
examining payments to Chuck Blazer, and that FBI agents had been
meeting with FIFAs head of security, Chris Eaton.
a week later, the Telegraph published a second article, confirming
that Blazer had been questioned by FBI officials and that the
investigation is being handled by financial specialists based in New
York, who have powers to access bank accounts and track financial
Evan Norris and Amanda Hector, the prosecutors working the case, the
two articles were highly aggravating. They were investigating an
international organization; possible targets were spread all over
the world. Leaks could jeopardize the whole thing. Warned of a
probe, corrupt FIFA officials could hide or destroy evidence, move
assets, threaten possible witnesses, or even retreat to countries
that dont have extradition treaties with the US.
case was now formally before a federal grand jury, which gave the
prosecutors the power to issue subpoenas, but also tightly bound
them not to disclose anything nonpublic about it. If either of them
violated grand jury secrecy, they could be prosecuted for criminal
contempt, and they had formally notified the agents on the case that
they too had to keep things absolutely quiet.
already had a problem with details of the case appearing in the
media back in August, when British investigative reporter Andrew
Jennings and the Reuters reporter published stories revealing that
the FBI, and specifically the Eurasian crime unit, was in possession
of documents pertaining to Chuck Blazer.
the investigation was going to go any further and now that they had
Blazer in hand, it certainly was this kind of thing had to
immediately stop. Norris got the whole team together, looping in IRS
special agent Steve Berryman, who lived in Southern California, on a
was, by nature, a reasoned and careful man. He liked to listen, but
volunteered little when he spoke and valued the benefits of patience
and restraint. On first impression, he could seem flat and devoid of
emotion, but those who knew him learned that he could express very
powerful feelings with just a slight narrowing of his brown eyes.
Addressing the team, he tried to balance the seriousness of the leak
with a measure of rationality, calmly citing concerns about
information getting out and trying to figure out who on the small
team to hold responsible.
nobody was willing to cop to such an impropriety. Perhaps there was
another explanation. Perhaps nobody on the team had leaked. In order
to conduct formal interviews with the English bid officials,
American investigators had been obliged to get permission from
British law enforcement, and several members of a Metropolitan
Police unit dedicated to organized crime had tagged along to the
UK was both obsessed with soccer and possessed a highly aggressive
press that was deeply sourced in law enforcement. The Telegraph
reporters had been covering the World Cup bidding story for some
time and had broken numerous big stories on the topic. Barring any
other evidence, the most likely explanation, Norris decided, was
that someone from Scotland Yard had been the source of the leak.
was no way to be sure, and it would be pointless to try to get the
Brits to confess. But the newspaper story made clear that despite
soccers low profile in the US, it was a gigantic deal in the rest of
the world, and it would be hard to keep a lid on any operations they
Norris delivered a new mandate. They would stop working with foreign
law enforcement entirely. No conducting interviews abroad. No
requesting records from foreign governments or overseas banks. And
absolutely no more talking to the press. Andrew Jennings, helpful
though he might be, was out.
was no question that all those restrictions were, in some ways,
going to make the case trickier to develop. Considering how many
meetings, tournaments, and other soccer events took place outside
the borders of the United States, and how many of the potential
targets werent American, it was as if they were intentionally tying
their hands behind their backs. But they would just have to get
creative and figure out different ways to gather evidence. Secrecy
case was going dark.
Blazer was Queen for a Day.
was Dec. 29, a Thursday, and cold, with temperatures in Brooklyn
hovering right around freezing. Blazer settled into a conference
room in the United States Attorneys Office overlooking Cadman Plaza.
had been caught in a crime, a serious and easy-to-prove felony, and
his goal was to trade useful information for a better deal down the
however, Norris spoke. Although he was nearly as tall as Blazer, the
prosecutor seemed almost comically slender beside the hulking man,
occupying just a fraction of the space at the table, swimming in his
dark suit while the soccer official threatened to burst out of his.
Norriss face betrayed no emotion, other than a slight furrowing of
his thick eyebrows, as he stared at Blazer and calmly explained
exactly what was about to happen. If there had been any confusion
about who was in charge, it immediately dissipated.
was a proffer session. Blazer was not being offered a plea deal or
immunity of any kind. Instead, Norris assured Blazer that any
information he provided, including indications of any crimes he
himself had committed, would not be held against him in court. The
prosecution would simply use whatever he told them as leads to hunt
down evidence of other crimes by others. Although that protection
did not extend beyond what was said that day, in that room, it meant
that for the moment Blazer could freely share without fearing it
would leave him in worse shape.
attorneys snidely called proffer sessions Queen for a Day meetings,
after the 1950s and 1960s game show by the same name, in which four
down-on-their-luck women would be interviewed by host Jack Bailey
about their hardships. After they were all done, the studio audience
would vote with applause on whose sob story was most
heart-wrenching, and the winner would be wrapped in velvet robes,
crowned, seated on a throne, given four dozen roses, and showered
with gifts, inevitably breaking into tears.
then, was Blazers big chance to be Queen Chuck.
of course, he lied. Or told anyone else he was cooperating. Or got
caught holding back. Or came up with some other creative way to hold
up the investigation. If Blazer misbehaved, then the prosecutors
were free to dredge up every crime he mentioned and use them
directly against him.
prosecutors would ask the questions, and Blazer would answer. They
wouldnt reveal who else they might be talking to, or where the
investigation was going, and, Norris suggested, Blazer should
refrain from even trying to guess. They wouldnt even tell him what
crimes they felt they could charge him for. They would test him.
They would see if they could catch him in lies. They would compare
what he said to what they already knew. No promises, whatsoever,
would be made; a proffer was a one-way street.
course, everything would be very professional. This was a federal
case, not some good cop, bad cop routine in a two-bit precinct
house. There was no yelling, no two-way mirror mounted on a grimy
cinder block wall opposite a steel table. The conversation was not
being secretly recorded. The stone-faced FBI agents in the room
werent there to interrogate, threaten, or cajole. They were there to
quietly take handwritten notes prosecutors sometimes jokingly
referred to the agents as scribes and after it was over, to type
them up into an official memorandum for the case file.
was the deal. If it didnt seem fair, thats because it most certainly
was not. But for Blazer, it represented the first step toward
earning the cooperation agreement he coveted, his chance at avoiding
a long prison term, and it started with him signing the document
Norris slid across the table.
letters vary widely among the countrys 94 federal judicial
districts. Some are a little softer, offer a tiny bit of wiggle room
for the defendant, or give them a bit more protection should things
go south. But the Eastern District of New York has one of the
toughest, least generous letters anywhere, with terms that very much
favor the prosecution.
is not a cooperation agreement, it read. The Office makes no
representation about the likelihood that any such agreement will be
reached in connection with this proffer.
signed. He would sign a similar agreement at each additional proffer
session he attended, 19 in all, spread over the next two years.
main offices of Fedwire and CHIPS, the
electronic clearinghouse systems used to move billions of dollars in
wire transfers around the planet every day, were just a few minutes
walk from each other in lower Manhattan, and after sending so many
subpoenas to them over the past several months, Steve Berryman
thought it was well past time to go visit in person.
IRS agent found himself in New York constantly as the case
progressed, staying in a government-rate hotel downtown and working
out of either the FBI field office, which he found stuffy and noisy,
or his hotel room. Given the distance from home, Berryman often
stayed for several weeks at a time, far from his wife back in
January 2012, he was in New York again to attend Blazers initial
proffers, and took time one day to visit CHIPS, or Clearing House
Interbank Payments System, which was a private company owned and
operated by a consortium of banks. Berryman hit it off with the
general counsel, and as they chatted, it occurred to him that the
rest of the team would benefit from gaining a better understanding
of how the money tracing he was so adept at worked.
he asked the CHIPS lawyer if he wouldnt mind getting together with a
few other agents and a prosecutor or two to explain to them the kind
of information they could get through subpoenaing the system.
a few days, Berryman had set up meetings at both CHIPS and Fedwire,
and convinced Norris, Hector, and the FBIs lead agent on the soccer
case, Jared Randall, to come along. The first meeting was at
government-owned Fedwire, housed within the Federal Reserve Bank of
New York building on Liberty Street. The building, opened in 1924
and modeled after a Medici palace, is a kind of fortress, occupying
an entire city block, and its basement vault contains the worlds
largest deposits of gold bullion, some 17.7 million pounds of the
shiny stuff at the time of the meeting.
above all that wealth, the team working the soccer case watched a
presentation about how money moved in an electronic and almost
instantaneous era. More expensive for banks to use than CHIPS
because of the way it accounted for transactions and the speed with
which it conducted them, Fedwire was the smaller domestic service.
Nonetheless, it had originated 127 million wire transfers in 2011,
moving $664 billion among the more than 9,000 banks around the world
with which it worked. That meant that the names, addresses, and
account numbers associated with hundreds of millions of wire
transfers were just a subpoena away.
laundering was a very modern crime, apt for a globalized age of
international commerce. Anyone could commit murder, but only the
wealthy and powerful had the resources required to move ill-gotten
capital through complicated webs of companies created at their
behest by expensive lawyers. Almost by definition, money laundering
deprived governments of taxes that could be used to the benefit of
law-abiding citizens, and it helped obscure the frequently serious
crimes that generated the money in the first place. Yet despite the
gravity of the offense, money launderers typically operated with the
impunity that comes with great privilege, unable to believe that
they could ever be touched.
Berryman, it was fascinating. Hunting down money launderers was, to
his mind, the most exciting thing happening in law enforcement. The
US government had busted huge money laundering operations in recent
years, ranging from narcos in Mexico washing drug profits through
money exchanges and New York banks, to Russian oligarchs using
remote South Pacific islands to clean up their plunder. Those cases
barely scratched the surface of a giant global industry dedicated to
hiding dirty money.
soccer investigation was an excellent case in point. FIFA officials
taking bribes needed to hide that income since it couldnt be
justified, and they frequently used shell companies in tax havens
and phony service contracts in order to make the fruit of their
crimes disappear. Fans of the sport, meanwhile, were left helplessly
bemoaning what had become an open secret: The sport was dirty from
top to bottom. The peoples game had become the property of selfish
men pretending to be some species of public servant, while hiding
countless millions of dollars in far-flung corners of the world.
had been that way for years, if not decades, and nobody had been
able to do a thing about it, despite widespread accusations of
corruption. But that, Berryman thought to himself, was because
nobody had ever had the combination of desire, knowledge, and
opportunity to take it on.
the meeting, Berryman chatted excitedly with the rest of the team,
happy to see they were beginning to understand the incredible power
Fedwire and CHIPS represented for a big international investigation
like this one. But not everyone seemed so impressed.
job, Steve, was all Randall said, before heading back to the FBI
field office a dozen blocks uptown and skipping out on the second
presentation at CHIPS.
cool response came as a surprise to Berryman, who assumed that his
voracious appetite for information that could help the case would be
shared by everyone else on the team. As soon as he had joined,
Randall had passed Berryman a folder of documents related to
corruption in soccer, and he had responded by regularly sharing
articles on the topic on the assumption the FBI agent was as
captivated by the topic as he was.
knew that Randall had talked numerous times with Andrew Jennings, a
formidable repository of information about the sport in his own
right; hed even listened in on one of Randalls calls with Jennings.
And after reading Jennings 2006 expos Foul!,
documenting corruption within FIFA and focusing in particular on its
Swiss president, Sepp Blatter, and Jack Warner of Trinidad and
Tobago, Blazer's closest colleague and longtime friend, Berryman had
bought copies of the book for Norris and Randall.
truth was that few people could match Berrymans enthusiasm for the
tortuously slow grind of money laundering investigations and, at the
same time, his degree of righteous indignation at the idea of people
corrupting soccer. On a case with as much potential as this one, it
went without saying that everyone would work long hours and make
sacrifices. But not everyone seemed to care as much as Berryman that
foul play could have played a role in determining where the World
Cup would be held.
most of the people on the case, it all seemed rather
straightforward: Run it like any other investigation and when the
well went dry, pack up and move on. But Berryman didnt see it that
way at all. He had no intention of stopping until he had brought
down every corrupt FIFA boss, all of the men who sat in the soccer
organizations underground bunker in Zurich and used their position
to steal from the game. When he had first met with the prosecutors
the previous August, he had told them he thought this case should be
pursued as an organized crime matter, employing the
anti-racketeering laws known as RICO. He had been surprised by their
lack of enthusiasm for the idea.
he wasnt filing subpoenas or combing through the results of them,
Berryman spent every spare moment reading up on soccer corruption.
He forwarded the articles, one after the next, to the rest of the
team, excited for them to learn the latest developments on the
subject. But all too often, the articles he enthusiastically passed
along to the rest of the team sat in their inboxes, unopened and
and Hector had gone into the Blazer proffers
hoping to confirm suspicions that FIFA elections were rigged and
that high officials routinely accepted bribes in exchange for their
votes. They were not disappointed.
tale was complicated but fascinating, and often downright funny,
peppered with off-color anecdotes and dirty jokes. The mans
charisma, difficult to spot in the photos of him dressed in silly
Halloween costumes on the internet, was obvious to everyone in the
room. He had a certain magnetic presence, and it was becoming easier
to see how a soccer outsider from a country with little interest in
the sport could have risen so far.
off the bat, Blazer confessed he had agreed to take money in
exchange for his vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup,
and that other countries had tried to bribe him at the same time as
well. He had also, he said, helped coordinate a bribe for Warner to
vote for Morocco to host the 1998 World Cup, although he personally
received no money because he wasnt a member of FIFAs powerful
Executive Committee, known as the ExCo, at the time.
kind of activity wasnt rare, Blazer said it was the rule, and
everybody on the FIFA ExCo knew it was happening. But if the
prosecutors wanted to know where the real filth was in soccer, the
truly big money and pervasive corruption, then they needed to look
beyond the periodic big votes in Zurich, beyond the selection of
World Cup sites or FIFA presidents and all the other events that
garnered the headlines.
financial heart of the sport, Blazer explained, was in the
marketplace for commercial rights, the contracts that allowed
broadcasters to put soccer matches on the air and advertisers to
plaster their logos on uniforms, stadiums, and halftime shows. It
was those deals, thousands of them around the world, that made up
nearly all of FIFAs billions of dollars in revenue.
it was hardly just FIFA. Each of the six regional confederations had
its own set of rights to sell, and in turn each of the more than 200
national associations around the world had a variety of rights to
offer as well. There were massive tournaments such as the
ultrapopular annual Champions League of Europes top professional
clubs, run by UEFA, the European soccer confederation, or the Copa
Amrica, held every four years in South America and showcasing
superstars like Argentinas Lionel Messi; there were hotly contested
World Cup qualifying matches in each region; and there were
sponsorship opportunities for every national team. Nobody wore a
Nike or Adidas uniform for free, after all.
counterparty to nearly every one of those right deals, Blazer
explained, was a sports marketing company, the middlemen of the
international sports world. It was a vast and robust, though
little-known, industry dedicated to scooping up sponsorship and
television rights to sporting events wholesale, then turning around
and reselling them la carte to networks, brands, and advertisers.
Operating on the principle that organizations such as FIFA, the
Oceania Football Confederation, or the Federacin Panamea de Ftbol
dont have the staff or expertise to sell their rights directly,
sports marketing companies offered a fixed price ahead of time to
take the rights off the soccer officials hands.
with any business, profits depended on paying as little as possible
for the goods they turned around and resold, and the best way to
ensure that the cost for soccer rights stayed below market value was
to shut out the competition. That, Blazer emphasized, was where
corruption came in: Sports marketing companies systematically bribed
soccer officials to keep prices low and not sell their rights to
bribes came each time a contract was negotiated, or extended, and
occasionally even in advance of a negotiation just to ensure things
ran as expected. Sometimes officials demanded the payments; other
times the sports marketing firms offered them. Either way, the
understanding was the same: We pay you under the table, and in
return you give us an exclusive sweetheart deal for the rights.
While the sporting press agonized over each political development
that emerged from FIFAs Zurich headquarters, hundreds if not
thousands of soccer officials around the world were getting bribes
and kickbacks for television and marketing rights with little, if
doubt, there were legitimate rights deals out there, and soccer
officials who were either too clean or too closely watched to take
bribes. But it was a safe bet that the vast majority of soccer
marketing deals, from the most prominent international tournaments
to meaningless regional friendlies, involved no-bid contracts that
undercut the actual value of the rights. That, by definition,
deprived the sport of money that could be spent on development
literally giving balls and cleats to impoverished children while the
officials running soccer secretly pocketed huge sums and sports
marketing executives got filthy rich in the process.
sums of money were huge. FIFA, for example, booked $2.4 billion in
television rights sales from the 2010 World Cup, and an additional
$1.1 billion in sponsorship and other advertising rights. There was
also more money in the US than might be apparent. Thanks to the
countrys roughly 50 million Latinos, it was in fact one of the most
valuable markets in the world.
2005, for example, Blazer had helped negotiate a deal for the US
television rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, a package that
also included two Womens World Cups and two Confederations Cups, a
smaller tournament played in World Cup host countries one year
before the big event.
and ESPN had paid a respectable $100 million for the
English-language rights to that package. But Univision, which
perennially ranked far behind the traditional broadcast
heavyweights, paid more than three times that, a whopping $325
million, to transmit the same slate of matches to the countrys
Spanish-speaking audience. By comparison, TV Globo of Brazil paid
$340 million for the same rights in the most soccer-crazy nation on
fast-growing value of the sport helped to underscore the scale of
the corruption. Since 2003, CONCACAF the regional confederation
overseeing soccer in North and Central America, as well as the
Caribbean had sold rights to its big tournament, the Gold Cup,
directly to networks and sponsors, using its own dedicated in-house
sales team in order to cut out the middleman. As a result, in 2011,
CONCACAF took in $31.1 million in television revenue alone, the vast
majority from the Gold Cup.
contrast, the Copa Amrica, a far more popular and competitive
tournament starring some of the biggest stars in global soccer,
brought in surprisingly little to CONMEBOL, the South American
confederation. The deal it had years earlier signed with Brazilian
sports marketing firm Traffic for the tournament paid out a measly
$18 million for the complete package of television and sponsorship
rights to the 2011 edition.
the Copa Amrica should have been worth vastly more than the Gold
Cup. But by agreeing to sell the tournament for far below market
value in exchange for bribes from Traffics founder and owner,
Brazilian Jos Hawilla, the officials who controlled South American
soccer had vastly limited the amount the confederation could bring
in for its most valuable asset.
was hardly a coincidence, Blazer continued, that Traffic had for
years paid bribes to him and Jack Warner for rights to the Gold Cup
as well, and that Hawilla had years earlier opened an office in
Miami just to handle CONCACAF-related rights.
Blazer made clear, was populated by two kinds of people: those who
took bribes, and those who paid them. If the Justice Department
really wanted to clean up the sport, it needed to take a hard look
at men like Hawilla, who sat, perched like fat spiders, at the very
center of the vast web of corruption.
in the room had ever heard of Traffic or Hawilla. Even Berryman,
despite all his late-night reading on the soccer business, drew a
blank when Blazer mentioned his name.
took a long time for Blazer to explain the
complicated world of sports marketing and the equally complex
structure of FIFA and its many satellite entities.
Blazer spoke, an idea slowly started to form in prosecutor Evan
Norriss head, and he felt a growing current of excitement. Midway
through the third proffer, on Jan. 18, 2012, he called a break and
walked out into the hallway outside the conference room to huddle
with the rest of the team.
seemed unusually animated, and his eyes lit up as he made a triangle
shape with his hands, joining his fingers together in front of his
face. International soccer FIFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, and the
Trinidad and Tobago Football Association were all part of a single
whole. They clearly fit the definition of a top-down enterprise, the
classic organized crime triangle chart.
was a boss: Blatter, FIFA's president. There were underbosses: the
FIFA Executive Committee and the executives of the six regional
confederations. And there were soldiers: the officers of each
national federation. There were even consiglieri: the advisers and
lawyers who helped the bosses run the show.
$10 million bribe to Warner and Blazer for their 2010 World Cup
votes; an envelope stuffed with $40,000 in cash for the president of
some obscure Caribbean soccer federation; a kickback for the TV
rights to a handful of Central American World Cup qualifiers. These
werent unconnected events. They werent discrete and unrelated scams.
It was all connected, Norris said, eyes shining.
sanctioned the confederations; the confederations sanctioned the
national associations. And the sports marketing firms greased
everyones palms. Men like Blazer, or Blatter, or Paraguayan Nicols
Leoz in South America, or Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam atop the Asian
confederation, might not have a hand in every crooked deal, but they
were all part of the same cohesive enterprise. They had taken over
soccer and corrupted it, and now this was how the sport operated all
Hector, and the FBI agents all had organized crime backgrounds. They
recognized these kinds of structures and perhaps were overly primed
to see them everywhere they looked. But they had tried to go into
Blazers proffers with open minds, unsure of what they were really
dealing with in a still developing case. Now it was abundantly
clear: Global soccer was a kind of organized crime. In fact, they
increasingly felt, it looked just like the mafia.
was a crucial intellectual leap for the case. It meant that
everything was fair game and everyone could, at least in theory, be
prosecuted together under a single statute that would allow the
prosecutors to leap across oceans and back through decades of
corruption to build one unified, sweeping argument.
had been right. This did look like a RICO case.
by Joe Gough for BuzzFeed News.
Bensinger has been an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News
since 2014. He previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the
Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Bensinger lives in
Los Angeles with his wife, two kids, and dog.