Falstaffian US soccer official exposed official corruption
Chuck Blazer, football administrator: b New York, April 26, 1945; m Susan Aufax; 1d, 1s; d New Jersey, July 12, 2017, aged 72.
Chuck Blazer was making serene progress on his mobility scooter along New York’s Fifth Avenue when decades as soccer’s notorious ‘‘Mr 10 per cent’’ came to an abrupt end and led to the exposure of the rotten core of football’s global administration.
A Falstaffian figure, unruly of hair and horizontal in his generosity, the longstanding American member of Fifa’s executive committee was hailed down in 2011 by an FBI agent and a tax investigator and told: ‘‘We can take you away in handcuffs now or you can cooperate.’’
Over the next few years Blazer provided the evidence to prove that the criminality in the running of the beautiful game started at the very top. His testimony effectively brought down Sepp Blatter, the seemingly impregnable president of Fifa, who for years had swatted away rumours of wrongdoing.
Blazer began as a ‘‘soccer dad’’ on the playing fields of Westchester, New York state, rising from running the local league to becoming the most powerful football official in the US and general secretary of Concacaf, the governing body for football in north and central America and the Caribbean.
From 1991 to 2011, Blazer earned his famous nickname, as well as nearly US$22 million, by taking a cut in all the Concacaf’s revenue from sponsorship and marketing deals to ticket sales and even hot dogs. He joined the Fifa executive committee in 1997 and over the next 16 years helped to turn the loss maker into a profit-making body by persuading Blatter that it should negotiate its own TV rights, with him taking a leading role.
Like all the best con men, Blazer was personable, charismatic and a brilliant salesman. He was often seen with his gold-and-blue macaw, Max, on his shoulder and like Long John Silver he hoarded considerable ill-gotten treasure – in Blazer’s case it was funnelled into shell accounts in the Cayman Islands. As the years went by he became even more brazen, claiming that he was not making any taxable income. Between 2005 and 2010 he did not file tax returns. The authorities grew suspicious.
After his arrest it emerged that he had accepted bribes and kickbacks for the marketing and TV rights of the Gold Cup, the Concacaf tournament that he had founded. He admitted that he had accepted a bribe to vote for France to host the 1998 World Cup and made £750,000 in accepting bribes to vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup.
He agreed to secretly record football officials at the 2012 London Olympics with a microphone on his key fob. In November 2013 Blazer pleaded guilty to 10 charges, including money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering. His evidence incriminated about 20 other high-ranking officials.
Blatter was defiant, winning another term as president, but was forced to resign in June 2015.
Blazer’s fondness for money was attested by his $29 million credit card bill while working for Concacaf. As well as homes in Miami and the Bahamas, he rented an $18,000-a-month penthouse in Trump Tower and an adjoining apartment for his cats. Max the macaw had a room to itself with a view of the Empire State Building.
He estimated that he travelled more than 320,000km and as he was wined and dined his weight ballooned to 203kg.
An ever-bigger weakness for braggadocio was expressed in a ridiculous blog detailing his luxury travel and junkets. ‘‘Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends’’ reported on his meetings with Nelson Mandela, the Clintons and Pele, or pictured him at one of the lavish fancy dress parties that he adored.
In one post he was photographed with Prince William, who was helping England’s doomed bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Not long afterwards, the blog boasted of his bromance with Vladimir Putin, who, with a World Cup bid to win, told him: ‘‘You know, you look like Karl Marx.’’
Describing his visit to the Kremlin in August 2010, Blazer wrote: ‘‘As the large doors of his private inner sanctum swung open, I was greeted by a smiling and very affable leader of the government, Mr Putin himself. A firm handshake and a personable smile set the tone for what turned out to be a very special experience.’’ Four months later Russia won its bid to host the World Cup. Blazer had initially indicated that he would vote for the England bid.
He never worked a room, partly because he could not see his feet and worried that he would step on people’s toes or trip over. Luckily, people tended to gravitate towards him, especially if there was a deal to be done. Back at Trump Tower, he had a tendency to overheat at his desk and his preferred modus operandi was to work at his laptop in the dark in his underpants.
Perhaps the tragedy of Blazer’s story was that he was a gifted administrator who almost singlehandedly revived the game in the US after the North American Soccer League (NASL) – which had briefly flourished in the mid to late 1970s – nosedived into bankruptcy in 1984.
He formed the American Soccer League in 1988, brokered its first TV deal and helped it to develop into Major League Soccer (MLS), which is now worth about £720 million. He also nurtured the US national soccer team and spearheaded the country’s winning bid to host the World Cup in 1994, which marked the rebirth of the sport in America.
Many figures in US soccer defended him in July 2015 when he was spared prison, but banned from all soccer activities for life.
Charles Gordon Blazer was born in Queens, New York, in 1945. His parents, Abe and Edna, ran a grocery store and cafe called Blazer’s Spa Luncheonette.
Among his contemporaries at high school were Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, future members of the Ramones and Jerry Springer. He was a handsome, strapping boy with thick curly hair and was considered so bright that he was moved up a year. He won a place at a prestigious school in the Bronx, but did not take it up because he wanted to remain in Queens, where he was already honing his entrepreneurial skills at his parents’ store.
His ambition was to be a psychiatrist, but his mother persuaded him to study accounting at New York University. He graduated in 1965, and the same year married his high-school sweetheart, Susan Aufax.
One of his earliest ventures was to popularise the smiley face that became a national craze. From his father-in law’s factory in Queens he manufactured millions of buttons with the smiley face for its inventor, Bernard Spain. The partnership went sour when Spain realised that Blazer was selling buttons to competitors to maximise his profits. ‘‘Chuck was a charming guy, but everybody’s nice until they screw you,’’ recalled Spain.
Blazer later started a business developing gifts that companies could award their best salespeople, including personalised towels, ashtrays and golf balls, while at the same time selling sex toys by mail order. Another business partner sued him for not returning a $27,000 loan and then claimed that, with ultimate chutzpah, Blazer entered his office to ask him for another loan.
He was 30 and had never kicked a ball when soccer appeared on his horizon in 1976. His son started playing for a local team in Westchester. Standing on the sidelines, Blazer was quickly drawn in. Before long he was the team’s coach and was organising the local league.
He found he had a talent for mollifying pushy ‘‘soccer moms’’ whose sons were not being selected. Using his enormous, groaning IBM 5120 computer, he organised tournaments, playing schedules and fundraising events. He even persuaded Nike to sponsor his son’s team. He was elected to run the US Soccer Federation in 1984 after persuading Pele to campaign for him, but five years later he was unemployed again and heavily in debt.
He flew to Port of Spain, where the US were playing Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier, and persuaded a local official, Jack Warner, to run as chairman of Concacaf. He managed Warner’s campaign and after his election became general secretary and moved the HQ from Guatemala City to Trump Tower, New York. Both profited handsomely in the ensuing 20 years until the racket started to come apart in May 2011 amid bitter recriminations.
After his arrest in 2011, Blazer gave up $1.9 million to the tax authorities. Mary Mulligan, his lawyer, later said: ‘‘Chuck felt profound sorrow and regret for his actions.’’
She added that he had hoped his cooperation would bring ‘‘transparency, accountability and fair play’’. An alternative epitaph might have been delivered by Max the macaw. Blazer’s wife had taken the bird after their divorce and returned it to him a year later, having taught it some choice phrases. Henceforth, as Blazer took business meetings at Trump Tower, the macaw would squawk: ‘‘You’re a dope.’’
– The Times