Former Fifa official whose testimony blew open football’s great corruption scandal
On a bright May morning two years ago, the world was shocked by pictures of top officials of Fifa, the international football federation, being herded away from the luxury Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich by Swiss police officers, sheltered from the media by staff holding up crisp white bedsheets. The early morning raid and arrests were based on indictments that followed an inquiry by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation into corruption in football, built around the plea-bargained testimony of Chuck Blazer, who has died aged 72 after suffering from cancer.
Blazer, a portly figure with a Santa Claus beard and Harpo Marx haircut, worked his way up from the grassroots of US soccer into the very heart of power in world football. As executive vicepresident of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF, or US Soccer), and then general secretary of Concacaf, the confederation governing football in North and Central America and the Caribbean, Blazer had, in the words of the former Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan “brought [US] soccer into the modern television age almost single-handedly”.
In the process he transformed Concacaf from football bit-players dominated by Mexico into a competitive and hugely profitable confederation, with the US entering the spotlight. His success led him to 17 years on Fifa’s executive committee, as the first American Fifa executive in almost 50 years.
It also led to a profligate lifestyle funded by the expense accounts of the bodies he served. Not that he lacked for income. Blazer earned the nickname “Mr Ten Per Cent” because his contract as general secretary of Concacaf paid him 10% of all the income he brought in from TV, sponsorship and other activities. He and Concacaf’s president, Jack Warner, allegedly extended that deal to bribes, including the $10m that South Africa paid Warner through Fifa in 2008, ostensibly to support football in the “African diaspora”, but widely thought to be in reward for their votes for the country hosting the 2010 World Cup. Warner denies any wrongdoing.
In fairness, Blazer generated huge incomes for a confederation that previously had earned pittances, and 10% was cheap compared with fees charged by sports marketing agencies. But as he controlled Concacaf’s books, Blazer could take his cut of any payments: between 2006 and 2011, Blazer’s income from Concacaf was close to $21m.
His status within Fifa generated the largesse of globetrotting hospitality, as he was courted by nations seeking his vote for the rights to stage the World Cup. He changed the title of his blog to Travels With Chuck Blazer and Friends at the suggestion of Vladimir Putin, who told him he resembled Karl Marx, and who posted pictures to the site, alongside those of Blazer with Prince William and Nelson Mandela.
Blazer also ran up nearly $30m on the corporate Amex card. Concacaf paid for his residences in the Bahamas, Miami and in Trump Tower, New York, where he maintained two apartments on the 49th floor, one housing his cats, while the confederation offices and a television studio took up the entire 17th floor. Concacaf paid for his $50,000 Hummer SUV, and nearly half that sum annually to garage it, but Blazer more often moved about New York on one of his fleet of mobility scooters, with Max, his pet macaw, on his shoulder. The bird was a gift from his ex-wife, who had taught it to cackle “You’re a dope” at Blazer. He was scootering to his weekly dinner at Elaine’s, a restaurant for New York’s elite, in November 2011, when FBI and Internal Revenue agents first confronted him. Blazer became an informant; two years later he went to court.
Pleading guilty in 2013 to 10 counts of racketeering, money-laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion, Blazer detailed bribery, kickbacks and corruption in the voting for the Fifa presidency, the executive committee’s voting for World Cup host nations, and the staging, broadcast and sponsorship rights for various tournaments in the Americas.
His testimony was not made public for two years. Fifa had endured and outlasted many recent scandals, but the FBI built their case patiently, turning both Warner’s sons and an Argentinian businessman into informers. Their indictment included nine Fifa executives, four sports marketers, and one television executive. Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, was not mentioned; he was re-elected overwhelmingly by the Fifa congress in May 2015. But just four days later, following the release of Blazer’s depositions and the tracing of the South African payments to Concacaf through the Fifa offices, Blatter announced his resignation, though not effective for another six months.
Chuck was born in New York, where his parents ran a newsagent’s in the Rego Park section of Queens. At Forest Hills high school his classmates included Jerry Springer, and one summer he played saxophone in a band led by the future rock musician Al Kooper, but he was never involved in soccer. He earned a degree in accounting from New York University and married his highschool sweetheart, Susan Aufox.
He left NYU’s Stern business school before completing his MBA degree, and went to work in his father-in-law’s badge-making business. When the Smiley Face badge craze broke, Blazer became a major supplier and made extra money selling buttons to retailers in violation of his client’s rights. Blazer was a hustler, moving in and out of fads, already playing fast and loose with profits, losses and debt. He began channelling his business and payments through shell companies so that nothing went directly into his accounts.
His life changed in 1976 when his son, Jason, began playing youth soccer in the upmarket suburb of New Rochelle. Blazer rose quickly to management of the Eastern New York State Soccer Association. In 1984 he arranged to host the USSF’s annual meeting, and persuaded Pelé himself to endorse his candidacy as international vice-president.
Off the back of the successful Los Angeles Olympic football tournament, Blazer engineered a massive increase in matches for the US national team, which led to their qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, and oversaw the creation of the hugely successful women’s national team.
However, when he failed to win re-election as USSF executive vicepresident in 1986, he became one of the founders of the American Soccer League. Designed to function on a tiny budget, the league still paid Blazer more than any team’s salary budget. When he was forced out as commissioner, he took over the presidency of the franchise in Miami, increasing his salary and expenses, while the team drew barely 1,000 spectators per match. Within two years, the league folded.
In 1989, Blazer ran Warner’s campaign for the presidency of Concacaf. The two became friendly during his stint with the USSF, and when Warner won, he appointed Blazer general secretary, rewarding him with that 10% deal. Concacaf’s offices moved from Guatemala City to New York, and Blazer oversaw the creation of the Gold Cup, staged in the US, but a valuable television property in Mexico and South America.
Blazer was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to the US in 1994, the same year he created a new company, Sportsvertising, in the Cayman Islands, through which his income was channelled. It was his failure to file tax returns over a period of six years that precipitated his downfall, alongside a rift in his relationship with Warner.
In December 2010 Qatar won the vote to stage the 2022 World Cup. In the first round, the US received only three votes, and Blazer’s suspicion that Warner had sold his vote to the Qataris seemed later to be confirmed by payments to Warner through the Concacaf accounts.
In 2011 Qatar’s Mohamed bin Hamman stood against Blatter for the Fifa presidency; barred from addressing Concacaf’s congress because he had been denied a US visa, Hamman spoke to a meeting of the Caribbean Football Union arranged by Warner. Delegates picked up envelopes containing $40,000 each; one of them notified Blazer, who then reported both Warner and Hamman to Fifa, whose ethics committee eventually removed them from the executive committee. Blazer lost his position at Concacaf.
It may have been the blatancy of that bribery scandal that set off the alarms among prosecutors in New York’s eastern district court. In 2013 Blazer left Fifa’s executive committee and was replaced by Sunil Gulati, president of the USSF, who for years had worked in Blazer’s Trump Tower offices.
Blazer’s marriage ended in divorce in 1995. He was being treated in hospital at the time of the 2015 arrests and never served time in prison. He was, however, suspended for life by Fifa. Warner and others named by Blazer still await trial, and Fifa suspended Blatter for six years.
Blazer is survived by his son, Jason, and his daughter, Marci.
Charles Gordon Blazer, businessman and sports administrator, born 26 April 1945; died 12 July 2017
Blazer, who pleaded guilty to racketeering, money-laundering, tax evasion and wire fraud in 2013, detailed bribery and kickbacks in the voting for the Fifa presidency and the executive committee’s decision on which country should host the World Cup