The World Cup of Corruption – Wall Street Journal



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Will Leitch

May 27, 2016 3:56 p.m. ET


At the end of the day, I bet Chuck Blazer wouldn’t change a thing. Blazer, the embezzling former general secretary of Concacaf (the North American and Caribbean soccer association) and executive vice president of US Soccer before he copped a plea to expose FIFA in order to save his skin, has been banned for life from the sport. His name is symbol of the excesses, vice and appetites of a staggeringly corrupt soccer establishment. And I suspect he loves it all. He loves all the places he got to visit, he loves all the luminaries he met, he loves all the women he bedded and, of course, the cash. Does he love that he got caught? Probably not. But then again: Blazer always wanted everyone to know his name, and it was through his corruption that he achieved the fame he’d always craved. He’s finally a guy they write books about. “American Huckster,” a new book about Blazer’s decadeslong Concacaf reign by New York Daily News reporters Mary Papenfuss and Teri Thompson, doesn’t quite do Blazer justice. But what could? A poor kid from Queens who didn’t even like soccer very much, Blazer elevated himself from a failed-several-times-over entrepreneur—at one point in the ’70s, his primary income came from the sale of sex toys, and he claimed, falsely, to have invented the Smiley Face button—to one of the wealthiest men in sports. He was able to do this because he was brazen where others would be timid, and because the sport of soccer, for so long, was ignored in this country but breathtakingly lucrative elsewhere. But the real reason he was able to become Chuck Blazer, international soccer impresario, was because he wanted to. If you wanted to have done it, you could have.

American Huckster By Mary Papenfuss and Teri Thompson Harper, 255 pages, $26.99

But you might not have thought, as Blazer did, to use company funds to pay for a Trump Tower apartment for his cats. (Mr. Trump himself is Blazer’s neighbor in Trump Tower, and Blazer’s admiration for the Republican nominee shines through in his every move.) In 1987, as commissioner of the short-lived American Soccer League, he paid himself $48,000, at a time when total salaries for each team were capped at $50,000. He lobbied to put be on Bahamian currency. With his power as a voting FIFA member on where World Cups are held—and his ability with Concacaf to influence the votes of others—Blazer was able to be feted by Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin. It all came crashing down in 2010 when the U.S. government, spurred on by the obvious malfeasance of Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup (even though no stadiums had been built and it’s too hot there in the summer to walk outside, let alone play soccer), began sniffing around the soccer culture in a way it never had before. The U.S. began a massive investigation into FIFA, which has culminated in multiple arrests and the first real shakeup of FIFA’s sinister executive culture. But it all started with the FBI catching on to Blazer’s tax evasion (he didn’t pay taxes for two decades) and corporate kickbacks. In November 2011, the Feds stopped Blazer as he was taking his mobility scooter from Trump Tower to Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse. They arrested him, letting him know he would have to cut a deal to avoid jail. Blazer agreed almost immediately to help catch his fellow crooks (though it was determined quickly that Blazer was in fact “too obese to be fitted for a wire”). This made Blazer one of the more unlikely whistleblowers in American history; only in FIFA could you find someone even more corrupt than him. For all Blazer’s eccentricities, I’m sad to say, “American Huckster” is sometimes less than compelling. The authors are dutiful reporters but not particularly exhilarating writers. A character like Blazer should pop off the page and should represent something larger than himself (and larger things than Blazer do in fact exist). I expected the book to feel like a carnival of excess, and instead found it disappointingly dry. Even their own tale, of how they got the scoop about Blazer cooperating with the Feds, seems somehow second-hand. What’s fascinating about Blazer is not that he turned on FIFA; any crook looking to save himself would do that. The fascinating part is that—through pluck, verve and otherworldly amounts of gumption—he operated in plain sight for so long. Anyone paying attention to Chuck Blazer knew he was crooked; he didn’t even mind if you knew. The story of his downfall is, ironically, strong evidence of soccer’s recent rise in this country. When we finally started looking, we were shocked at what we found. We were the only nation that would have been. —Mr. Leitch is a senior writer at Sports on Earth, a culture writer for Bloomberg Politics, a contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of Deadspin.


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