How the largest sports corruption scandal of all time was uncovered and prosecuted in the US — the country that cares the least about soccer.
You may remember that back in May of 2015, senior FIFA officials were arrested on corruption charges in Zurich. Those arrests rocked the foundations of the world’s most popular sport. But little did we know at the time that the case was so wide-ranging and complex that its reverberation involved the FBI, the IRS, Donald Trump, Christopher Steele, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and Vladimir Putin.
As the final of the World Cup is played in Russia this weekend, the WhoWhatWhy podcast features a conversation with investigative journalist Ken Bensinger, who spells out the 40-year history of bribery, corruption, and money laundering that has been at the heart of world-wide professional soccer.
Ken Bensinger was part of the team at BuzzFeed that uncovered the Christopher Steele dossier. He’s also become the go-to authority on the complexity of the world’s biggest sports scandal.
This week, Bensinger tells Jeff Schechtman how corruption ran unchecked for decades, until a team of investigators from the one country that cared the least about soccer stepped in to try to stop it.
He takes us up close and personal with American FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, considered the most corrupt soccer official in history. He was a friend of Donald Trump and lived on the 49th floor of Trump tower. When the IRS discovered and confronted him about not having paid taxes for 17 years, Blazer turned state’s evidence against other FIFA officials.
We learn about the FBI and IRS soccer task forces. The multinational crimes unit overseen by the FBI director, at the time — Robert Mueller. When the arrests were made in May 2015, it was announced by then-FBI Director James Comey.
Bensinger also tells Schechtman about how Putin became interested in wanting the 2018 World Cup, and how he enlisted oligarchs in the process. And finally how Putin’s corrupt efforts were uncovered by the British, who’d had a competing bid, and hired none other than Christopher Steele to find out what the Russians were up to.
There is a lot more to this complex global story — including heads of state, like the president of Argentina who felt soccer was more important than his government; an illegal sports book that was busted at Trump Tower; and the role of Russian organized crime. Listening to this week’s podcast is a great prelude to the World Cup final.
Ken Bensinger is the author of Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal (Simon & Schuster, June 12, 2018).
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Every day, we read and talk about stories concerning corruption in the US and around the world in governments and business and in organized crime. Sometimes, depending on our point of view, we see the corruption as bigger than it’s reported, and sometimes the reporting gives us a sense that it’s less. In 2015, the FIFA scandal in world soccer would become the granddaddy of all scandals. In fact, it may become the gold standard by which all future corruption will be judged. The scope, the money, the number of people, the length of time that it went on, are staggering.|
|And In many ways, it all comes together this month right now in Russia as the world’s biggest sporting event is played out against this remarkable backdrop of corruption. What’s more compelling and maybe an underlying issue of the whole crazy story is that it was America where soccer is still way down the popularity list, where the scandal was uncovered, investigated, and prosecuted. In fact, some even argue that the dogged pursuit of the case was America’s way of keeping the sport down so as not to interfere with other more popular sports. It’s a remarkable story and it’s told by my guest Ken Bensinger. Ken has been a journalist for more than 20 years.|
|He’s worked at the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and most recently for BuzzFeed News. He was one of the investigative reporters who broke the Christopher Steele dossier story and now he has painstakingly assembled the story of worldwide corruption in his new book Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal. Ken Bensinger, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Thanks so much for having me.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||I want to talk first how you came to this story, how you began to find the first links that you would then spend years unraveling?|
|Ken Bensinger:||As you mentioned, I’m an investigative reporter. I don’t necessarily always write about sports. But, I write about a variety of soft topics, though occasionally I dip my hands into sports. In 2014, prior to the last World Cup, I decided to write a profile of a guy named Chuck Blazer who was a very powerful soccer official from the US that’s basically unknown inside the US. He’s just a very famous figure in the world of soccer, but unknown in the US. I started digging into him and just wanted to learn more about him. The more I learned, the more corrupt I realized he was. That article, which was a full look at his life, published just a couple of days before the last World Cup.|
|I moved on to other topics, but then a year later, May 27th, 2015, the secret US criminal investigation blew up into public view because of these now notorious arrests in Zurich where FIFA officials, FIFA being, of course, the body that controls world soccer, these FIFA officials were dragged out of their hotel rooms in early morning and arrested. The whole world woke up to this giant scandal. Within a few days it develops that Chuck Blazer, the guy I had profiled, was in fact one of the chief cooperators in the case and had been wearing a wire for the DOJ. When that came out, I suddenly kind of by accident became the expert on him and on his whole criminal base.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Chuck Blazer was originally investigated by the IRS for money laundering and financial corruption and really he flipped in order to avoid tougher charges. Talk about that.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Yeah, that’s right. I mean, Blazer’s a heck of a character. It’s almost hard to believe such a person would exist. But, this is a guy who grew up not playing the sport. He grew up … He came out of Queens, but at the same high school as Simon and Garfunkel, and I think the Ramones also graduated from that high school. Was a salesman and did a lot of different odd jobs. Only discovered soccer when his children started playing youth soccer in Westchester County, New York in the late 70s. He was an opportunist. He saw opportunity there perhaps when no one else did and jumped at it hard. Very quickly found the ranks of world soccer.|
|By 1990, he was the second most powerful guy in the confederation, which is one of the bodies underneath FIFA. A confederation that oversees North and Central America and Caribbean. So, go from Canada all the way to Panama, basically. By 1997, he was on the FIFA Executive Committee, which is the most powerful governing committee in all of World Soccer. As he was doing this, he was doing a lot of good things for the sport. He creates the women’s national team. He has a role in creating the Women’s World Cup. He creates, or helps, plays a big role, in getting the first revenue positive TV contract for Major League Soccer.|
|But, he’s also, as it turns out, skimming money from the sport the whole time. And essentially, stealing from soccer every turn. Putting everything on soccer’s credit card. Paying nothing for anything ever. And just enriching himself at soccer’s expense. He finally … What his Achilles heel turns out to be is that he doesn’t pay taxes. This is what the IRS discovers, right? The government had already started their case, but were not making a lot of progress, when an IRS agent here in California took the time to pull up his tax returns and discovered he had no tax returns. That this guy, Chuck Blazer, simply hadn’t filed taxes in 17 years.|
|Well, you can imagine for an IRS agent, that’s an open and shut case. Pretty easy to get someone with no tax returns and that’s what they did. They, him and an FBI agent confronted Chuck Blazer in the lobby of the building he lived in, which happened to be the Trump Tower and told him he had a choice. He could either cooperate with the secret investigation or he could basically go right to jail.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And all of his skimming, was just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the corruption that was endemic in FIFA and Worldwide Soccer. Talk about that.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Yeah. I mean, what he did was typical and characteristic of the kind of stealing that was happening from the game everywhere. But, it was certainly not isolated. His was just one of so many examples that were the same, which is people get into power in sport and would demand bribes for certain things and would mess with accounts and do all kinds of things to benefit themselves financially at the sport’s expense. So, in his case, he ultimately admitted to taking bribes in exchange for votes on important FIFA decisions that were made in the executive committee. He admitted taking bribes in exchange for signing over contracts for TV and sponsorship rights to regional tournaments that he oversaw. He also, meanwhile, was using soccer … the actual American Express Card in the name of the confederation he controlled to pay for every single expense he had in life, every day.|
|That’s the kind of behavior we ended up seeing from soccer officials all over the world, especially in South America, but also every country in Central America, the US, and it’s pretty clear in other regions of the world as well.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about the origins of this. Because it really does seem that soccer officials, FIFA officials throughout the world, as you were just eluding to, were all corrupt. How did this get started? How did this culture of corruption become so embedded in worldwide soccer?|
|Ken Bensinger:||I mean, I did a lot of research on this, trying to exactly understand the genesis of this. An opinion I have which I think is shared by a lot of people who were historians of the sport. Put a finger on June or July of 1974 as really the beginning of this. That’s the moment that “João” de Havelange, which is a Brazilian guy, is elected as the first non-European president of FIFA. He’s elected on a platform of democratizing the sport and bringing it to all these parts of the world that really didn’t have it, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia. All kinds of places, where really it wasn’t available. That got him a lot of votes, but it also turns out, he didn’t have the money. FIFA had no money at that time to actually fulfill the campaign promise.|
|At that time, FIFA’s income was largely from ticket sales at the World Cup and other events and that was it. There was very little TV money. There was very little sponsorship money. He realized that wasn’t enough. He was approached right around that time by a fellow whose father was the founder of Adidas. This is the son of the founder, who’s kind of a marketing genius. This man linked up with an advertising expert up in England and made a proposal to Havelange, the new president of FIFA. They said “If you need money, we can get you money. We’ll just start doing sponsorships.” They signed up Coca Cola to be the first sponsor, sort of international exclusive sponsor of FIFA.|
|By 1975, that contract was signed. By the 1978 World Cup, Coca Cola was the marquee sponsor. Other companies followed suit in that style of global exclusive sponsorship was picked up soon by the Olympics and by every other major international sport. But, it was a primary thing at the time. That’s when the big money starts flooding into FIFA, is when all these big brands get involved. By the early 1980s, it’s a few years later, technological improvements make it possible to instantly broadcast color television signals of tournaments all over the world.|
|At that point, the TV money starts getting huge for soccer. Within a few years the money from television surpasses the money from sponsorship and FIFA is sort of rolling in dough. But, the people like this Adidas guy I mentioned and others, who expectedly work as middle men in these deals quickly realize that it’s in their benefit to bribe soccer officials in order to keep the prices of these contracts low. Then they can re-sell them for much bigger profits. So, these middle men discover that if they put under the table bribes out to the soccer officials, they’ll get, for example, the World Cup TV rights at below market value. And they can turn around and sell those on a country-to-country basis to different broadcasters in each country at a huge markup and then they keep the difference.|
|That really is the origin of it. That scheme to bribe and to keep the prices low was launched in late 1978, according to the interviews I did.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And what’s remarkable is how this caught on all over the world. I mean, there were no immediate whistle blowers. It seems like everybody was caught up in this corruption.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Yeah, that’s right. There was actually … There was a criminal case in Switzerland. One of the very few criminal cases that every happened prior to the US investigation, where they went after this company that went bankrupt that had control of FIFA’s rights for many years. In the case, it being Switzerland, there’s very few punishments doled out. And ultimately no soccer officials were implicated or at least charged with anything. A couple of the executives of the company were forced to pay fines and that was about it.|
|Before the judges, when they were talking about their sentencing and stuff, the officials of this company openly admitted to it. They called them commissions, instead of bribes. And they said that they had to do that because, if they didn’t do it, someone else would. That was just the way business was done in soccer and in world sports, was to pay commissions and everyone did it. And it was very matter of fact. They weren’t secretive about it at all. It was beyond open secret. It was just ‘that’s the way it is.’ Of course, later we found that the DOJ stridently disagreed with that.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Why were there no other investigations anywhere else? Really this US investigation was really the first major effort to begin to root some of this out.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Right. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that most countries have an incredibly elevated place for soccer compared to the US. It’s hard for American audiences to really appreciate that. But, the closest thing I can sort of compare it to be, would be as if we took the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League and squashed them all into one entity and made that the only sporting entity in the country. It starts to give you a sense of how important soccer is in these other countries. It not just the number one sport. It’s really the number one through five sport in those countries.|
|As a result it actually has tremendous political influence as well as cultural sort of presence. In many countries, there’s a clear resistance to mess around with soccer. There is political pushback from elected officials. There can be public outrage if anything is done. As a result, the law enforcement in those countries tends to be very gun shy about it. In Brazil, for example, which has terrible corruption problems in soccer, there have been numerous cases, where there is referrals made to prosecutors to investigate clear corruption, and they refused to investigate.|
|In England, there have been instances where press reports have shown clear corruption and the government has not only refused to open criminal cases, but have actually tried to prevent the articles from being published for fear that it would tarnish England’s reputation with FIFA and prevent them from getting favors from FIFA. So, in a funny way, the US, because soccer’s the fourth or fifth biggest sport in this country, the irony of the US going after it, starts to make sense. Because you realize this may be the only country in the world that would have that kind of political cover, where the politicians wouldn’t mess around with it. The public wouldn’t really care. And they could operate the investigation for what turned out to be years without outside interference.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And around the world, there were also many government officials, many politicians in many countries, that were also on the take.|
|Ken Bensinger:||Yeah, it’s right. Some of them were politicians who had come from a soccer backgrounds, and had sort of brought their corrupt ways with them. There was also a form of politicians who later went to soccer as a second career. The former president of Honduras, for example, later became an important person within that country’s soccer federation. He ended up being indicted in this case and pleading guilty and is now waiting a prison sentence in the US. A member of the Supreme Court of Guatemala also was a similar story. Was a Supreme Court Justice, or I think an Associate Justice and also a soccer official who was taking bribes.|
|I don’t want to say this person took bribes or not. But, to give you a sense of the kind of power, the president of Argentina formally was president of the country’s most popular soccer team. The line from heading a soccer team to be the most powerful person in the country in these places is pretty short.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||All of that brings it to Russia in 2018. Russia getting the World Cup. What went into that effort?|
|Ken Bensinger:||It’s a shadowy story. Actually it’s really critical in understanding the whole FIFA case. In 2010, Russia was bidding to host the World Cup. It was bidding against a number of other countries, among them England. England felt it had every right to be selected the host. It had the best infrastructure of all the countries. So, they’re bidding, it had invented the sport. Had quite a legacy and a pretty good history of success in the field, especially compared to Russia, which didn’t have a great soccer history and had terrible infrastructure, etc.|
|But, to be overly cautious the Brits hired some experts to do field work and intelligence work for them on competing bids to make sure that there was no surprises. One of the people they hired was a fellow who had been in the MI6, was a former retired British spy with an expertise in Russia, who went on to become very famous for other reasons, but at the time was not well known, and his name was Christopher Steele. Christopher Steele, of course, is very well known to audiences now. But, back then, was just a quiet, unassuming fellow in central London.|
|He, through his sources, began to hear that Vladimir Putin, who famously doesn’t like soccer, and is a hockey fan, had become very interested in the bid. Had become actively involved in helping them win it. And had been getting his closest oligarchs, enlisting them to help get out the message that people should vote for Russia. Had been potentially bribing World Cup voters with paintings and other kinds of things. And maybe making huge business deals and oil deals in FIFA sponsorship deals all with a goal of winning the vote.|
|Christopher Steele informed his bosses, his client at the English bid. But, he also took an additional step, which was to call an FBI agent he had met a few months earlier and to tell the FBI agent that what he’d been finding and see if they thought that might be a case. Well, it so happened that this FBI agent was a specialist in Russian organized crime and was very interested in possible examples of bribery and money laundering that would involve Russia. He was interested in the case from a Russia perspective and didn’t know much about FIFA, but that might be something. Brought it back to New York, found a prosecutor who was interested, assigned a case agent. And away they went with what was supposed to be an investigation of Russian corruption and FIFA, and ultimately got much bigger and went in different directions.|
|But, now, in 2018, we see the World Cup in Russia. And we see that in the end, Putin got exactly what he wanted. He won the bid and he got this month-long party that feels a little bit like it’s in his honor.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s also remarkable the degree to which this is about Russia. That Christopher Steele and the FBI are involved in this story. And then even going back to Chuck Blazer, who you mentioned at the beginning of this. Chuck Blazer, who lived in Trump Tower, and was a friend of Donald Trump’s.|
|Ken Bensinger:||That’s right. Blazer lived in the Trump Tower. One of the other people convicted in the case, also in an apartment in Trump Tower and was living in that while he was waiting for trial, was a Brazilian guy. In fact, that FBI agent I mentioned a moment ago, at the time he first met Christopher Steele, he was working on a Russian organized crime related illegal gambling case with a poker room and an illegal sports book, much of which was taking place in the Trump Tower, where they had wiretaps operating. He had met Christopher Steele while getting information for that case. There’s a dizzying number of connections directly to Trump.|
|As you mentioned, Chuck Blazer not only lived in the Trump Tower, but was personal friends with Trump. Trump once let him use the atrium of Trump Tower for his high school reunion. Then beyond that, there’s connections to all of the people, who are now running the Trump investigation. Robert Mueller, was the FBI Director at the time the FIFA case opened. It was under his directive to work on international, what he called ‘transnational crime,’ that they ever even thought about looking into things like FIFA. Jim Comey, James Comey, was the FBI Director by the time the FIFA case went public. It was him who announced the case in a press conference in May 2015 to the world.|
|It’s like the same cast of characters, Christopher Steele, Donald Trump, Robert Mueller. They’re all there for both parties.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much of this corruption is still inside FIFA? And how much was rooted out as a result of all of these prosecutions and all of these investigations?|
|Ken Bensinger:||I think it’s hard to say. I think FIFA is taking steps towards cleaning itself up. But, I also, … I believe that these things don’t resolve themselves overnight. The metaphor I use more often is sort of imagining someone with an illness, perhaps a cancer. The first step might be to remove the tumor, which you can think of as the really corrupt people. But, beyond that, you can’t give them a clean bill of health yet. You still got to do all kinds of other treatments and therapies and monitoring and stuff over time to make sure that the patient really recovers. I think that’s a way to think about the FIFA case. They maybe have cut out the worst actors and forced the former president to resign and ultimately have convicted more than two dozen people.|
|In fact, just the other day, another corporation based in Florida pled guilty to two counts of wire fraud and agreed to pay almost $25 million in fines. It’s like the third or fourth company to do that on top of all the individuals who pled guilty. That’s sort of step one, but step two is the reforms and other things. We can see the new leadership of FIFA trying to do that. But they’re really baby steps. They’re small changes and nudges in governance to open it up a little bit. Changes in the way that work up hosting votes are held, who votes and how transparent that is. I think those are important steps forward, but I would say that to change a 40-plus-year-old culture of corruption takes more than just a couple years.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about the banking part of this, because there was so much international money laundering going on. Where was the banking component in this?|
|Ken Bensinger:||The banking component … That was critical. The IRS agent we talked about very briefly earlier brought to the case something really important, which was the ability to follow the money through the banking system. It had provided both an incredibly important investigative tool, but also a jurisdictional option to the whole case. Because what they discovered is that all of these corrupt soccer officials were paying bribes to each other, taking bribes from marketing people and broadcast people via wire transfers. And those transfers, more often than not, were going through American banks. So, even though the bribe might be going from someone in Argentina to someone in Brazil, for example, or Chile, or Ecuador, the wire transfer actually would go through US banks once or twice, before getting to the final bank account.|
|That meant they were using the American banking system to commit these crimes. It meant the US had jurisdiction on the case and also that these guys could trace it without anyone knowing it. They could subpoena all these American banks, find information about the wire transfers and build a case without anyone ever being the wiser. And that’s exactly what they did.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Has any of this had any real impact on the popularity of soccer around the world?|
|Ken Bensinger:||I think it’s hard to say. True to form the whole world is watching. I’m watching it. I mean, it’s been a great tournament. I’ve talked with a lot of people who have no interest in the sport who are riveted to it now, because the spectacle of it is great. It’s really fun to watch. You don’t have to know that much about the sport to really appreciate these tight gripping contests, when they happen. But, I think that points up one of the ironies of this whole thing, is that the rest of the next three and a half years, three years and a piece, three quarters, people are going to be grumbling about how dirty and corrupt the sport is. Then the World Cup comes around and everyone watches it again.|
|It almost seems as very independent variables. People don’t like the corruption of the sport, but they really love the World Cup and they really love great soccer tournaments.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Has the corruption reached down to the games themselves? We’ve certainly had cases in this country, basketball being the most notable, I suppose, where the corruption has impacted the outcome of the games.|
|Ken Bensinger:||I think you’re referring to match-fixing and that sort of thing?|
|Ken Bensinger:||From the perspective of the prosecution in this case, that was considered a different kind of crime. The prosecutors determined that the people who were fixing matches, which is a real serious problem in this sport, were not the same people who were taking bribes for the rights contracts, were taking bribes for the FIFA votes. The thinking on that was that … If you make this income from taking bribes, you don’t want to tarnish the image of the sport, because these are sponsorship and TV deals. You want the sport to be as attractive as possible so that broadcasters are really hot to buy the contract. The big fear they had, was that match fixing would tarnish the public image. The one way to turn people off the sport is for the people to think the matches were fixed.|
|So, in general, when you see fixed matches, it’s at lower level events, rather than the World Cup. You can imagine the minor leagues of El Salvador and that sort of thing, rather than at the highest level. In general, the people paying the bribes and benefiting from it are very different than the people running the sport.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||With all of this, the US was awarded the World Cup for 2026. Talk about that.|
|Ken Bensinger:||That’s right. The US got the 2026 World Cup along with … it’s going to share it with Canada and Mexico. That was awarded on June 13th, right before the World Cup. They were competing against Morocco. The US had tried to win the 2022 World Cup, but that was given to Qatar, which is another very controversial decision by FIFA. The basic premise and promise of the bid that the US made was, we’re going to generate more money than any tournament in the past. So, this is called the ‘United Bid.’ They said, they estimated at $15 billion profit from this tournament. Their appeal was purely commercial. We can make this incredibly successful.|
|For FIFA, that was music to their ears, just like the story I told earlier about João Havelange needing more money when he took over FIFA. The new president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, finds himself in a similar situation, because in the wake of the FIFA scandal, all these sponsors abandoned the sport at the same time that the legal bills went through the roof. And for the first time in decades, FIFA was running at a deficit and was in dire need of money. A very lucrative tournament is exactly the kind of tonic that the sport thinks it needs to keep going.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Finally, do you think the sport will ever be totally cleaned up?|
|Ken Bensinger:||I don’t think any sport is totally clean ever. Right? Our American sports, we don’t really think of the National Football League as having this kind of bribery and corruption going on. But, certainly it has other problems. Right?|
|Ken Bensinger:||There’s so much controversy about the way that they deal with brain injuries and the way they deal with now some of the very complicated questions around race in the sport. Then there’s also the issue of the way stadiums are built, whether they use political influence to get what they want at the cost of the taxpayer. I think it’s impossible to remove all corruption from sport. But, I do think that if FIFA adopts a more American and transparent model operating, there’ll be less corruption and it will be cleaner and that will redound directly to the benefit of fans around the world.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Ken Bensinger. His book is Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal. Ken, I thank you so much for spending some time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Ken Bensinger:||It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me on your show.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from FIFA 2018 (Ben Sutherland / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), FIFA logo (FIFA / Wikimedia), Donald Trump (White House / Wikimedia), Vladimir Putin (President of the Russia / Wikimedia – CC BY 4.0), Robert Mueller (FBI / Wikimedia), James Comey (FBI / Wikimedia), Chuck Blazer (BBC News / Wikimedia), and Christopher Steele (Frontier Freepress).