Chuck Blazer

For­mer Fifa of­fi­cial whose tes­ti­mony blew open foot­ball’s great cor­rup­tion scan­dal

The Guardian - - OBITUARIES - Michael Carl­son

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

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