A chronicle of bribes and lies in the ‘World Cup of fraud’

The Japan News

By Ken Marantz / Japan News SportswriterRed Card

By Ken Bensinger

Simon & Schuster, 349pp

In his first official function as president of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) in March 2012 — as a replacement for the disgraced Jack Warner — Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands agreed to a suggestion of setting up an “Integrity Committee.”

Never mentioned was the combined $3 million bribe he was to receive from two top sports marketing firms for the commercial rights to the qualifying matches of all Caribbean Football Union members for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Such under-the-table, behind-the-scenes dealings were just the tip of a very dirty iceberg that symbolized the deep corruption that long permeated every level of FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.

Ironically, it was the government agencies of a country long a minor player on the soccer scene — the United States — that launched the investigation that eventually blew the lid off FIFA’s stench-filled operations, a four-year probe that is wonderfully detailed in Ken Bensinger’s “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal.”

Bensinger, an award-winning business and finance journalist who has been a member of BuzzFeed News’ investigations team since 2014, spent three years scouring stacks of documents and interviewing dozens of key figures to put together a page-turning account as scintillating as any John Grisham novel.

We are taken into the innermost lair of the opulent FIFA House, the organization’s Zurich headquarters, as well as the Russian White House, where the late CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer — whose blatant evasion of U.S. taxes started the ball rolling on the investigation — met with Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister of the Russian Federation, who was doing all he could to help the motherland secure the rights to host the 2018 World Cup.

By that time, of course, bribery and corruption had become rampant in the sport, with payoffs made via shell companies and tax havens. Steve Berryman, a special agent for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and a longtime soccer fan living in California, launched the investigation into Blazer that snowballed into a wide-reaching, global probe.

“Investigating Chuck Blazer’s tax problem was like pulling someone over for a bum taillight, only to discover a trunk stuffed with dead bodies,” Bensinger writes.

While corruption of the bidding for big events like the World Cup might grab the headlines, the big money was in the bribes to the heads of FIFA and the continental and national federations for the marketing rights to matches that they sanction. “A soccer confederation, truly, was a wonderful toy to have,” Bensinger writes.

The book crescendos with Swiss authorities raiding the glitzy hotel of the FIFA Congress in Zurich in May 2015. Webb and Warner were among 18 individuals and two corporations who were indicted, with another 16 individuals added in a second wave seven months later.

“This really is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card,” Richard Weber, chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation unit, said at a press conference in New York.

But as we know, a red card only keeps the player out for the rest of that game, and sometimes the next. The issue is whether they repeat their fouls.

— Ken Marantz

Japan News Staff Writer

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