RED CARD: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal
By Ken Bensinger
Simon & Schuster, $28.00
As the World Cup in Russia nears its conclusion this weekend with Croatia and France in the Final on Sunday, let’s take a look back at how the Kremlin was named host.
Ken Bensinger, an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News, gives the definitive account of the FIFA scandal and how American investigators unraveled the biggest international corruption case in sports history, in his new book, RED CARD.
Bensinger shows how soccer, led by FIFA’s executives, was transformed into a massive bribe-fueled racket, sucking up hundreds of millions of dollars in a wide-reaching scheme that crossed international borders, implicated world leaders, and sullied soccer’s reputation.
The corruption within FIFA ran unchecked for decades, until a team of relentless investigators from one country that cannot be called a soccer country stepped in to put an end to it.
It is the true story of how IRS agent Steve Berryman, working from a California beach town, teamed up with a cerebral New York prosecutor and a squad of mafia-busting FBI agents to secretly build the most significant criminal case in international sports history.
On May 27, 2015, senior FIFA officials were arrested on corruption charges in Zurick at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice. The indictment, unsealed hours later in Brooklyn, prompted massive charges at the world’s top soccer body, including the resignation of its president, Sepp Blatter, and a Swiss criminal investigation of the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. To date, more than two dozen people have been convicted in the probe, which has accounted for more than $300 million in bribes paid to soccer officials around the world over the past three decades.
RED CARD is not just a story about a sport gone wrong, but one that involves deep-seated international corruption involving global business leaders and politicians. It highlighted the geopolitical significance of the world’s most popular sport.
Bensinger writes of the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup, including the event where each country made their presentations just before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, “In a nod to fairness and, perhaps, the short attention span of many of its delegates, CONCACAF had allotted twelve minutes for each bid team to make its case.
“Russia’s delegation, led by Alexey Sorokin, the Russian Football Union’s general secretary, presented first, and it did not go well.
“For starters, Russia’s national soccer team had failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup thanks to a humiliating loss the prior November to lowly Slovenia, a country with a total population only slightly larger than the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. And (Chuck) Blazer, viewed as a likely vote for England, was not even in the room. A diabetic with nagging respiratory problems, he had decided to avoid Johannesburg because the city’s high altitude affected his health.
“Russia’s presentation, meanwhile, was embarrassingly marred by a glitchy PowerPoint deck that failed three times as Sorokin spoke. Sorokin, handsome and polished, with excellent American-accented English and a toothy smile, exuded confidence. But his pitch, spotlighting drab, distant cities like Yekaterinsburg, lacked any sparkle or charm. The audience of mostly Caribbean and Central American officials seemed unmoved or if not downright bored.
“By comparison, England’s bid team turned in a dazzling performance. David Dein, a debonair, impeccablty tailored former vice chairman of London’s Arsenal soccer club, looked and sounded like the kindly rich uncle everyone wished they had, with regal features and the poshest of accents. He warmed up the room with a joke – ‘The last time I did it in 12 minutes, I was 18 years old’ – that brought forth peals of laughter. Then he cued up a video starring superstar midfielder David Beckham. It highlighted the fact that England already possessed enough state-of-the-art stadiums, not to mention airports, hotels, and highways, to host the World Cup more or less immediately, no construction needed.
“The English press, in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, hailed the presentation as a sign that England’s chances looked good and that technical prowess, existing infrastructure, and general competency – merit – would win the day.
“The Russians, however, were playing a different game.”
In the pages of RED CARD are plenty of names from today’s headlines, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sought (and won) the host bid for the 2018 World Cup to show Russia’s strength; Christopher Steele, the British spy now known for his infamous dossier on President Donald Trump and Russia, who was brought in by England’s World Cup bid team to gather intelligence on other countries’ bids; President Trump, who gave FIFA executive Chuck Blazer space in Trump Tower in the early 1990s; and former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Soccer in other countries is a point of national pride and power, and this book goes into how long corruption has plagued international soccer, unsercutting every aspect of the sport from the World Cup host bid process to broadcasting and marketing rights.
Based on hundreds of interviews, tens of thousands of pages of court documents, contracts, foreign investigations, and other original source materials, RED CARD reveals the maginitude of corruption that plagued soccer.
Bensinger began reporting on FIFA with a profile of American FIFA executive Chuck Blazer in 2014 for BuzzFeed, which went viral a year later with the dramatic raid on FIFA’s executives in Switzerland in 2015. He has continued to follow the case and the machinations of FIFA, and with this book, he tells the full story of the case and its major players for the first time.
The case continues to unfold, and two of FIFA’s South American executives are set to be sentenced this August.
On August 17, Jose Maria Marin, former president of Brazil’s soccer association (CBF), will be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court. This is the first sentencing of someone convicted in the FIFA trial that took place in November and December last year.
In December 2017, Marin was found guilty of five counts of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, for his role in taking millions in bribes in exchange for television and sponsorship rights to domestic and international soccer tournaments.
On August 29, Juan Angel Napout, former president of the South American soccer confereration CONMEBOL and a FIFA Vice President, will be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court. He is the second person convicted by the jury to be sentenced. Napout was convicted on three counts of racketeering and wire fraud; federal prosecutors showed how he negotiated millions in bribes as he climbed the ladder of international soccer.
Bensinger, in an interview, said of the implications for soccer since this scandal was brought to light, “There is a before and after date in the modern history of soccer: May 27, 2015. That’s the day of the first arrests in the U.S. soccer investigation and the day everything changed in the sport. Within days, FIFA saw its seemingly untouchable president, Sepp Blatter, resign and subsequently face a criminal investigation in Switzerland and a six year ban from the sport. So, too, have his deputy and the head of Europe’s soccer confederation been banned, along with a host of other officials at the sport’s highest ranks. Few have managed to avoid scrutiny, including legends of the game such as Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer. Sponsors have walked away from the sport, and massive TV contracts based on bribes have been ripped up and discarded. FIFA, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, which for decades booked massive profits, suddenly dipped shortly into the red as its legal bills mounted and sponsor income crashed.
“In the wake of the crisis, FIFA has been more or less occupued by a big U.S. law firm, Quinn Emanuel, which is billing tens of millions of dollars as it forces the nonprofit to make dramatic changes in its governance. The situation is similar a the six regional confederations overseeing soccer on a continent-by-continent basis, which for the first time are being obliged to be transparent about their spending and hold officers to codes of conduct. FIFA has opened voting for the World Cup location to its entire membership, rather than just its top executive committee, and for the first time ever, appointed a female general secretary…
“Meanwhile, the DoJ investigation continues and there is considerable reason to believe that it will reach far beyond the Americas, where most of the focus has been. In mid-2016, it was revealed that the prosecutors had a cooperator who held a key position in the Asian Football Confederation, which oversees soccer from Saudi Arabia all the way to Japan. That region includes Qatar, which is slated to host the 2022 World Cup, despite the fact that by any reasonable standard it is too small and too hot to host such an event. Insiders with knowledge of the investigation suggest that one possible goal would be to show that Qatar won the right to host that tournament thanks to bribes; if that allegation was stood up with evidence, then the Gulf nation could potentially lose the tournament, which would be a huge geopolitical event.”