Red Card blows the whistle on world’s biggest sports scandal
By Dan Deneve
With the World Cup having just wrapped up, it is an excellent time to examine a dark history of the organization that not only runs the World Cup, but rules soccer, FIFA. Ken Bensinger’s, Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal does just that. Most everyone knew that FIFA, its six regional organizations, and more than 200 countries were not perfect, but the level of corruption was breathtaking in scope, money and for how long it went unchecked. Even the United States was not immune as one of its leading soccer officials was caught up in the corruption.
That all changed in late 2011 when IRS special agent Steve Berryman, who also just happened to love soccer, began looking into Chuck Blazer, who had received more than $500,000 in suspicious payments over a fifteen-year period. With the FBI notifying Berryman about Blazer, it seemed this would be a slam dunk tax evasion scheme. Bensinger outlines how this ended up becoming a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) investigation that ultimately led to an examination and trial of FIFA and soccer throughout the world by the United States Department of Justice, led by Evan Norris. Six years later, when the investigation ended, more than 40 people would be charged, including 24 who plead guilty and agreed to help investigators for less punishment and no jail time. Ultimately, only two defendants were tried and found guilty. One faced up to 60 years in prison while the other faced 120 years. A third defendant had been found not guilty of RICO conspiracy.
What makes this book fascinating is how we got from Berryman’s initial investigation to the verdicts. What goes on for six years reads no different than a fictional crime thriller. Leaders of regional soccer organizations like Jack Warner, President of CONCACAF, which oversees North and Central America and the Caribbean, was skimming money all the time from anywhere he could. Bribery was the name of the game. Additionally, the hypocrisy was even more damning as money that was supposed to go to poorer countries to build soccer fields and promote the sport to children was ending up in the wallets of men like Warner, who owned multiple homes, luxury cars, and expensive jewelry.
Sadly, even when he “retired” from soccer, his successor was no better. Jeffrey Webb was even worse than Warner if that is possible. First, he promised to clean up the corruption. No more payoffs and bribes. Webb wouldn’t even take a salary. Where Warner skimmed hundreds of thousands at times, Webb had no problem asking television executives for up to $10 million as his bribe to make sure the exclusive rights went to a certain channel. The amounts shocked everyone involved in the “negotiations”, which is saying a lot since these people were all used to paying bribes and kickbacks. Everyone did it and it was just part of the way deals were made.
Unfortunately for the sport, these higher-ups were not the only ones cutting illegal deals for themselves and slowly tarnishing the sport they claimed to love and serve. Men like Julio Grondona, longtime President of Argentina’s soccer association, controlled who got broadcast rights to the professional leagues in that country. Grondona was one of the sport’s most feared and powerful person because of the illicit influence he wielded.
Those convicted knew how to hide the money. They would set up the shell companies in the Caribbean where banks are less inclined to help any investigations or offer any information about their clients. Furthermore, fake contracts between these companies would be signed and used to transfer the money. Then the money would move several more times between banks and fake companies. What did these men in was these corrupt transactions mostly passed through American banks as very few banks would wire or could handle the amounts being passed around, legally or illegally. Now the United States could investigate these crimes since they were committed on American soil.
As a sports fan, albeit, not a huge soccer fan, I enjoyed this book. The amounts of money floating around soccer just in bribes along lets us know soccer is a very valuable commodity. Unfortunately, as Bensinger points out, many of those who claim to serve and love the sport, really only loved the sport so they could serve themselves heaping piles of money at the expense of the sport itself. Tragically, I don’t think anything will change. Bribery is how things get done in most places and the fact that even when changes were made, the new person was as “dirty” as the previous one, if not more. If you are a soccer fan or love real life crime, then I can’t recommend this book enough.