As the World Cup opens, a tale about winning dirty: How a swindling suburban soccer dad pocketed millions as he helped make the sport in the U.S a booming success.
In the middle of 1989, suburban soccer dad Chuck Blazer had just lost his job, had no income, and was struggling with debt.
But he did have a few things going for him: He was audacious, with a keen eye for opportunity; he was a splendid salesman; and he knew a vast amount about the world’s most popular sport. Not the fine points of on-field strategy — he’d never actually played the game — but rather the business of American soccer, which was, back then, woeful. Compared to baseball, basketball, and football, soccer was a starving runt. Multiple professional leagues had flopped. TV networks couldn’t even figure out how to fit commercials into the 90-minute, time-out-free games, and they rarely bothered to broadcast the sport. The United States national team hadn’t qualified for a World Cup in nearly 40 years.
A quarter-century later, American soccer has become an athletic and economic powerhouse, due substantially to the contributions of Blazer. He helped win Major League Soccer’s first real TV contract, and just last month the MLS inked a $720 million TV deal. The U.S. national team, which he helped promote, is now a World Cup mainstay, ranked higher than powers such as France and the Netherlands. And more people in America are playing soccer than any team sport save basketball.
Blazer’s influence wasn’t limited to these shores: He helped organize the Gold Cup, the Confederations Cup, and the Club World Cup, lucrative tournaments that improved the play of national and professional teams around the world. He also became the first American in almost half a century on the executive committee of FIFA, instilling a business-first culture in world soccer’s governing body and persuading it to take control of its own television rights, turning the money-losing organization into a profit machine.
And Blazer? He has raked in more than $21 million from the sport, much of it paid to offshore shell companies. He flew around the world in the first-class cabin, lived in an $18,000-a-month apartment high above the glitziest stretch of New York’s Fifth Avenue, and relaxed in a luxury condo in the Bahamas — on soccer’s dime. With a huge unruly mass of bushy hair and beard, and a broad toothy grin over a prodigious belly, he palled around with the globe’s glamorous and powerful, including Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela.
Much of Blazer’s wealth and influence can be traced back to an extraordinary contract he made with the organization that runs soccer from Panama to Canada, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF. It entitled him to 10% — under his unilateral interpretation — of just about every penny the organization brought in. That document provided him an intoxicating personal incentive to grow the sport, earning him a life of spectacular luxury and an unforgettable nickname: Mr. Ten Percent.
International soccer has a notorious reputation for corruption and intrigue, one that contrasts sharply with its squeaky-clean image in America. For millions here, the sport represents an antidote to the cynical, alienating gloss of the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Don’t buy it. American soccer came of age under the watchful eye of a man who is half soccer dad, half globe-trotting rogue, who ultimately would be called a swindler by the very organization that he led for 21 years.
Blazer’s version of the Horatio Alger story would end with his downfall, as the powerful men who aided his rise eventually turned against him — and he them — exposing his secrets and laying bare his voracious self-interest. He would, finally, be stripped of his rank and cast down from the soccer firmament.
Several people with knowledge of CONCACAF operations said they had met with law enforcement agents to discuss Blazer’s activities or to pass along documents to aid an ongoing investigation into possible fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined comment, and the Internal Revenue Service said it could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Blazer has not been charged with wrongdoing.
CONCACAF, for its part, concluded a lengthy probe of Blazer last year, finding that he committed fraud against the confederation, misappropriated its funds while breaching fiduciary responsibility, violated the FIFA ethics code, and broke U.S. tax laws. Last year FIFA said it was suspending its own investigation into Blazer’s activities.
Blazer, 69 years old, declined multiple requests for interviews, citing recent surgery, and he did not respond to a detailed letter delivered to his residence last week seeking comment. The information in this article was taken from interviews with more than three dozen people involved in soccer or other aspects of Blazer’s life, as well as public documents, court records, commissioned investigations, news clippings, manuscripts, histories, biographies, and monographs about the sport. Full source notes can be found here. While pieces of Blazer’s story and his dramatic departure from soccer have previously been covered, this article offers the fullest account of his entire career.
“I’m perfectly satisfied that I did an excellent job,” Blazer said in one of his few recent public statements. “I spent 21 years building the confederation and its competitions and its revenues and I’m the one responsible for its good levels of income.” Indeed, Blazer has maintained repeatedly he was entitled to everything he got under the terms of his contract, and that CONCACAF still owes him millions of dollars.
Many people who helped develop soccer in the U.S. have praised Blazer’s commitment, hard work, and, especially, vision for the sport. “Chuck is one of the most important people in the history of soccer in this country,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said. “Not every American knows that the man behind the scenes pushing this sport is Chuck.”
Next week, the 2014 World Cup opens in São Paulo, and the U.S. national team will be there, competing in its seventh consecutive World Cup. Chuck Blazer, the feared and revered godfather of modern American soccer, infirm and exiled from the sport, is not expected to attend. But as billions of people around the world tune into the world’s most watched sporting event, his greatest legacy might be that more of those viewers than ever will be American.
Perhaps it took a man like Chuck Blazer to help yank U.S. soccer out of its dark ages. Maybe only someone as canny, ambitious, and ruthlessly self-serving as he could successfully navigate the ugly side of the beautiful game.
International soccer’s most lurid scandals typically involve match fixing, as happened recently in Italy and China, or blatant bribery. But ironically, the most abused loophole of the sport’s international governance may be its radical commitment to democracy. In FIFA, and in each of the six regional confederations that govern the sport, every member nation is granted exactly one vote.
The tiny island of Montserrat, population scarcely 5,000, has the same voting power as China, population 1.3 billion. This means that CONMEBOL, the 10-nation South American body that oversees soccer powers Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, with nine World Cup titles among them, is the planet’s weakest confederation. The Confederation of African Football, with 54 members, none of which have ever advanced beyond the quarterfinals, is as strong as the organization representing Europe and part of Central Asia.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this setup creates the potential for manipulation, particularly when dealing with small, poor countries with virtually zero stake in the integrity of the sport because their teams have almost no hope of ever playing in soccer’s most important events.
Soccer from Panama City to the Arctic Circle, including the U.S., is overseen by CONCACAF. For decades, the confederation had been controlled by Mexico and Central American countries, largely because they were the only ones with enough interest in soccer to care about influencing the sport. Nevertheless, CONCACAF’s numerous island states dwarfed the mainland nations in number of votes. He who could build a coalition of palm trees and white sand beaches could make CONCACAF his own.
That simple fact brought the unemployed Blazer in November 1989 to Port of Spain, where the U.S. national team was playing Trinidad and Tobago for a final shot at qualifying for the World Cup the following year.
A large American contingent was there to root for the red, white, and blue — which won the game and finally made the World Cup thanks to a legendary Paul Caliguiri goal known as the Shot Heard Round the World. But Blazer wasn’t just there to cheer; he came to strategize with his pal Jack Warner on how they might conquer CONCACAF.
The two first met in 1984 when both served at CONCACAF, Warner representing his native Trinidad and Blazer the U.S. They became fast friends while attending the 1986 World Cup in Mexico together; Blazer, whose garrulous enthusiasm and love of costume parties contrasted with the acerbic reserve of Warner, would come to call the diminutive former schoolteacher his “best friend.”
The day after the Trinidad–U.S. match, Blazer consoled Warner on his team’s loss. Then he urged him to run for CONCACAF president.
Blazer ran Warner’s campaign, and the pair quickly locked up the entire Caribbean bloc. When the 1990 election took place that April, Warner won with three times as many votes as the incumbent, an elderly Mexican with diabetes. Warner immediately appointed Blazer general secretary, charged with running the confederation’s day-to-day operations.
Unlike his predecessors, who focused on organizing rinky-dink tournaments in Tegucigalpa or San Salvador, Blazer realized that soccer’s commercial potential lay in the United States, the sport’s great, untapped market. He moved CONCACAF’s headquarters from Guatemala City to the Big Apple, and on July 31, 1990, he signed the contract that would guide the rest of his career.
Technically, the contract was not with Blazer himself, but with a seven-month-old New York company that he founded and controlled with the unlikely name of Sportvertising. Under the terms of the eight-page retainer agreement, Sportvertising would provide CONCACAF with an employee who would carry out the duties of the general secretary. In exchange, CONCACAF would provide office space and administrative support and pay Sportvertising a series of fees plus a 10% cut of certain types of revenue, including “sponsorships and TV rights fees.” At the time, CONCACAF had virtually no TV deals and brought in scarcely $140,000 a year.
Warner, who called Blazer “one of the top international businessmen” in the U.S., signed on behalf of CONCACAF.
An employment lawyer who reviewed the contract for BuzzFeed called it “unreal,” noting that in addition to the 10% share of TV sponsorship and rights deals, it gave Blazer 10% of the cash value of barter and in-kind deals, a fixed monthly “administrative fee,” and an additional 10% cut of the administrative and TV sponsorship fees — in essence, a fee on fees. It also provided an unspecified amount for benefits such as vacation pay, a per diem in addition to reimbursement for travel expenses, and two life insurance policies with Blazer’s estate as beneficiaries.
At first, his cut amounted to 10% of almost nothing. Warner, in remarks last year, recalled that Blazer’s wife initially paid CONCACAF’s rent in the Trump Tower, where the confederation set up offices. But the document’s language gave Blazer a very personal incentive to transform CONCACAF into a cash cow.
Blazer didn’t come from money. Classmates said he grew up working behind the counter at his family’s stationery store and newsstand, Blazer’s, in Rego Park, a heavily Jewish middle-class neighborhood in Queens. But he went to Forest Hills High School, one of those legendary New York brain factories that pumps out generation after generation of talent.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were Forest Hills grads, as were the Ramones, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. The FHHS class of 1961 included Jerry Springer, the TV host and former Cincinnati mayor.
Charles Gordon Blazer also graduated in 1961. Surprisingly, given the Falstaffian figure he would become, few classmates remember much about him. Al Kooper, who founded Blood, Sweat & Tears and played with Bob Dylan, didn’t go to Forest Hills but remembered being in a band one summer with Blazer, who played tenor sax. “When autumn came, Chuck blazed out,” said Kooper, who never saw him again.
Forest Hills had a soccer team, but Blazer wasn’t on it. Nor was he on the yearbook staff or the math team. In fact, his only listed activity was the Marshal Squad, whose members were “the guys who sat in the hallway and asked you for your hall pass,” one classmate recalled. “The jerks.”
As an undergraduate at New York University, Blazer studied accounting and married his high school sweetheart, Susan Aufox. He then enrolled in NYU’s Stern School of Business. University records show he never finished his MBA, but he didn’t need it.
His first big business success came around 1970, when two brothers from Philadelphia helped create a national craze for the world’s original emoticon, the yellow smiley face, by adding the phrase “Have a Happy Day.”
Blazer ran a button factory in Queens owned by his father-in-law, and he became one of the country’s principal manufacturers of the iconic buttons. “We bought millions of buttons from Chuck,” said Bernard Spain, who, along with his brother, went on to create the Dollar Express chain. The public’s appetite for the buttons was insatiable, yet Spain was frustrated by a perennially short supply.
“We kept asking him for more, and he didn’t have them, because he was selling buttons” to competitors, recalled Spain, who said he ultimately ended the relationship. “Chuck was a charming guy. But everybody is nice until they screw you.”
The smiley face fad ended almost overnight, and Blazer turned to selling other promotional and marketing items, such as ashtrays and monogrammed beach towels — anything to turn a buck.
“Chuck was a wonderful talent,” said Marvin Lieberman, a friend and business associate who until 2007 owned a company that made inflatables such as the giant ketchup bottles and beer cans displayed in supermarket aisles. “He could look at his checkbook and not have a penny in the bank, go to work, and in three weeks he’d have made $200,000 or $300,000.”
In 1976, Blazer’s son, Jason, started playing youth soccer in Westchester County, N.Y., where the family lived. It proved an auspicious moment: Scarcely 100,000 children were even playing the game in America, but right around that time, popular interest was picking up, in big part because the New York Cosmos had just paid Brazilian megastar Pelé millions of dollars to play in the North American Soccer League. Blazer began coaching his son’s team, with his flexible sales work giving him plenty of free time to get deeply involved in the sport.
Parents of other youth soccer players remember him as an adroit and active administrator, more interested in organizing game schedules, lining fields, or designing uniforms than actual coaching. Blazer soon moved up in the ranks of Youth Soccer of New Rochelle, N.Y., and then the Eastern New York State Soccer Association.
Perhaps the first time Blazer leveraged soccer to his financial advantage came in 1981, when the father of one of his son’s friends hired him for consulting work. Fred Singer had just opened a direct-mail marketing firm and realized the business would benefit from computerized sales data. Blazer, whom he met on the soccer sidelines and recognized as “a very good B.S. person” and “influence peddler,” was the only person he knew who owned a computer.
Once a week, Singer would come over, and the two would huddle over Blazer’s imposing IBM 5120 — a 100-pound behemoth that retailed for $13,500 — and punch in numbers. “He helped create almost every model of purchase order I ever used,” said Singer. “I still use Chuck’s orders to this day.”
In 1982, Blazer asked a favor. Some merchandise sales had fallen through, and he needed cash. Singer drew up the papers and transferred $27,332.40 to Blazer’s company — about $67,000 in today’s dollars — payable in 90 days.
But Blazer paid back only a portion of the debt, and Singer sued, reaching a settlement years later. While the case was still pending, though, Blazer “came into the office and said he’d like another loan,” Singer recalled. “That’s the ultimate chutzpah. Who does that?”
Before he angled his way into CONCACAF in 1990, Blazer spent a decade bouncing around the fast-growing sport, running peewee leagues, regional all-star teams, and even, briefly, a professional team. He took away only middle-class pay but learned invaluable information about the business of the game.
“Chuck is extraordinarily knowledgeable about soccer, but I never detected in him any real passion for the sport,” said Doug Logan, the first MLS commissioner, who saw Blazer socially well into the last decade. “He’s what I’d affectionately call a suit.”
In 1984, the United States Soccer Federation, which sanctions all amateur and professional soccer in the U.S., including the national team, had an election. Housed at the time in the Empire State Building, the body had no revenue strategy, almost no money, and, unlike similar groups in soccer-crazy countries in Europe or South America, very little influence.
Blazer hatched a plan, arranging for his own Eastern New York State Soccer Association to host the USSF’s annual meeting and persuading Pelé himself to campaign for him at the event. He was elected executive vice president, in charge of international competition.
Hugo Bandi, who for decades worked as a match promoter, recalled Blazer summoning him to his office soon thereafter and demanding that he include the U.S. squad in a tournament he was organizing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“He said, ‘We are not going to be treated like a Third World country,’” recalled Bandi, who dropped Guatemala to make room for the Americans. “He was the one that launched the national team to play in international games.” Between 1981 and 1983, the U.S. team played only two matches; after Blazer’s election it played 19 matches in less than two years, helping to lay the groundwork for the U.S. to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, its first in four decades.
As a leader of the USSF, Blazer played a central role in deciding to bid to host the 1994 World Cup. And on his watch, the U.S. women’s national team formed and played its first match. But perhaps most important, Blazer’s position required him to sit on the board of CONCACAF, where he would meet Warner.
Despite the successes, Blazer’s tenure at the USSF ended quickly when he lost his 1986 bid for reelection. But within a year, he co-founded the American Soccer League, or ASL, a new professional league that aimed to avoid the pitfalls of the old NASL, which had spent itself into oblivion chasing big-name foreign stars.
Five teams plunked down the $10,000 startup fee, and Blazer, the league’s commissioner, took control of operations, running it from his five-bedroom Scarsdale, N.Y., home. In a bid to keep finances tight, the ASL had imposed a salary cap limiting each team to $50,000 for all player salaries combined. But in a deposition several years later, Blazer said that he initially paid himself $48,000 a year and that when more teams signed on, he boosted that to $65,000 — 30% above the payroll for any team’s entire roster.
In an arrangement that would foreshadow his time at CONCACAF, Blazer didn’t pay himself directly. Instead, he used a shell company, sometimes called a fictitious business or DBA, short for “doing business as.” This one was called New Markets International, which he described as “the name I conduct soccer business under.” He set up a bank account in New Markets’ name and cut checks to it from the league’s bank account for what he dubbed a “management service fee.” The practice, which Blazer had also employed in his days selling buttons, kept his name out of financial transactions.
The ASL began play in April 1988 with 10 teams. Attendance was poor, and that December Blazer quit under pressure from owners who complained he kept them in the dark about league finances. Yet almost right away, he managed to get named president of the Miami Sharks, one of the ASL franchises.
Blazer immediately took control of the team’s finances, according to minority owner Windsor del Llano, a former Bolivian national team player who was the Sharks’ coach at the time. Blazer paid himself $72,000 and used the team’s checkbook to cover housing for him and his Shih Tzu, Tango, at the waterfront Four Ambassadors Hotel, as well as flights back to New York once or twice a month, even as the team drew fewer than 1,000 fans a game. He hired away the coach of a rival team and made wholesale roster changes in a bid to appeal to Miami’s Hispanic community, including signing an over-the-hill Peruvian goal scorer.
And then in May 1989, Blazer disappeared. He told reporters at the time that he quit and later wrote that it was because the “owner ran out of money.” But the owners maintained that he was fired because “he spent a lot of money but he didn’t get any back.” Either way, said del Llano, Blazer split in a hurry. “We got to the office and there was nothing. He didn’t even leave the bills we had to pay,” said del Llano, speaking from his home in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
The struggling team was sold nine months later, and the entire ASL disappeared after only two seasons, merging with another league. “Blazer sold me on a lot of dreams,” del Llano said. “But I had no idea he was a pirate.”
Less than a year after his sudden disappearance from Miami, Blazer was overseeing soccer throughout all of North America and the Caribbean in his new role at CONCACAF. In short order, CONCACAF took offices on the 17th floor of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, a move Blazer later cast in religious terms. “We didn’t get the Trump Towers by accident,” he said. “It had to come from some divine intervention.”
Blazer’s contract had huge upside, and he devised a new regional competition that would include CONCACAF’s two largest markets, the U.S. and Mexico. He persuaded Mexican broadcaster Televisa to sign on, and in the summer of 1991, Blazer oversaw the first Gold Cup.
Attendance at the event, held in the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was modest, but that year CONCACAF brought in just over $1 million — a sevenfold increase on the confederation’s take the year before Blazer took control. The Gold Cup, held every other year, became CONCACAF’s biggest moneymaker. By 2011, a Gold Cup year that was Blazer’s last at the confederation, CONCACAF had $60 million in revenue on just $31 million in expenses.
As impressive as CONCACAF’s growth was under Blazer, so too was his share of the growing pot. Between 1991 and 1995, he took in more than $1 million. And though his contract specified a cut only from certain revenue streams, CONCACAF records show that Blazer — who personally controlled the confederation’s books — apportioned himself 10% of almost every single dollar that came in, including ticket sales, luxury box rentals, parking fees, even hot dog sales.
In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup, which served as a coming-of-age party for American soccer. On the same day Brazil beat Italy in penalties in the Rose Bowl to hoist the cup, Blazer’s CONCACAF contract expired. The next day, July 18, 1994, he and Warner signed a new one with nearly the same terms, extending Blazer’s 10% cut another four years.
This time, however, the myriad fees and commissions would be paid to a different entity — one still called Sportvertising but registered in the Cayman Islands, where there is no income tax, no wealth tax, and no capital gains tax.
Taxes — or avoiding them — appear to have been a constant theme throughout Blazer’s career.
In the space of three decades, Blazer or entities he controlled received more than two dozen state and federal tax liens totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1989, he admitted in a deposition to not having filed personal income taxes for at least three consecutive years. And in May 2010, the IRS revoked CONCACAF’s status as a tax-exempt organization, because under Blazer’s stewardship it had failed to file returns for at least three consecutive years, a potential breach of fiduciary duty.
Over the years, Blazer established at least a dozen shell companies, both in the U.S. and abroad, and in some instances apparently created multiple layers of holding companies, making it virtually impossible to connect him to a particular cash flow. As a result, it’s difficult to know exactly how much money Blazer brought in beyond what he recorded in CONCACAF’s books, which were privy only to him and the confederation’s controller, who had no formal training in accounting.
Those records, however, show that between 1991 and 2011, when he left the confederation, Blazer made nearly $22 million. In 2011, his take of the pot was nearly twice the compensation of all other CONCACAF employees and directors combined.
“I don’t think he thought he was doing anything wrong by taking” his commission, said Jill Fracisco, who was hired by Blazer in 1994 to run competitions for CONCACAF and worked there until last year. “He was doing the deals and earned them. It’s good to be the big man.”
Over Blazer’s two decades in office, his pay was brought up only three times before CONCACAF’s executive committee or the body as a whole, confederation minutes show. CONCACAF members — and the executive committee — seemed to exercise little, if any, oversight.
Indeed, after his second contract expired in 1998, Blazer never signed another. He didn’t need to. With essentially total control over CONCACAF’s finances, he just kept taking for himself 10% of virtually everything.
In 2006, for example, FIFA gave $3 million to CONCACAF to build a TV studio inside its New York offices. That money doesn’t appear to fall under the “sponsorships and TV rights fees” described in Blazer’s original Sportvertising contract, but he apparently transferred 10% of that amount to his side of the confederation’s ledgers.
There was no one to stop him.
In 1997, Blazer ascended into international soccer’s elite when, with Warner’s endorsement, he was named to FIFA’s executive committee. The 24-member group oversees the world soccer body’s most important decisions and, particularly, its business affairs.
While Blazer’s CONCACAF duties mostly kept him in New York, the FIFA job required extensive travel, which he detailed in a lively and unguarded blog.
The blog is still active, though Blazer posts infrequently these days. But its pages — replete with photos of him in exotic locales, often in the company of celebrities such as Prince William or sitting presidents of various countries — open a window into the jet-setting world of luxury Blazer came to inhabit. In 2010, for example, he traveled to the Kazan Kremlin to meet with the president of Tatarstan, and in 2008 he attended the Republican National Convention as a friend and family guest of Sen. John McCain. (Election records show that Blazer donated $2,300 to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Calls and emails to the senator were not returned.)
Such is the life of FIFA ExCo members. They and only they determine which country hosts the World Cup, opening gushers of money. Nations bidding for the cup or other FIFA-sanctioned tournaments ply members with gifts and receive them with pomp normally reserved for the highest dignitaries.
In August 2010, Blazer traveled to the Kremlin for a personal visit with Vladimir Putin. “As the large doors to his private inner sanctum swung open, I was greeted by a smiling and very affable leader of the government, Mr. Putin himself,” Blazer wrote. “A firm handshake and a personable smile set the tone for what turned out to be a very special experience.”
According to Blazer’s account, Putin asked if he could post some of his own travel photos on Blazer’s blog. He even persuaded Blazer to change its name from “Travels with Chuck Blazer” to “Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends.”
At the time, Russia was competing with England and three other nations to host the 2018 World Cup. Media reports had widely predicted Blazer would vote for England, but four months after his Moscow visit, he said he chose Russia.
“I look at England and say, ‘What more could we have when we’re finished than what I am certain would have been a great World Cup?’” Blazer said after the vote. “I believe that when we’re finished in Russia, we’ll have accomplished a lot of different things.”
Blazer often plays up his eerie resemblance to Santa Claus, dressing up as Saint Nick on occasion, as he did last December for a holiday card. Big and brash and quick with an off-color joke, he can engage almost anyone in conversation.
He is, in short, a great salesman. Those who know Blazer as an executive are impressed by his intense focus and ability to multitask, by how adept he proved at organizing the myriad moving pieces of soccer tournaments, and particularly how he brokered no dissent, what former MLS commissioner Logan called his “iron hand.” They’re also struck by his hunger for the good life.
Blazer became a regular at New York’s finest restaurants, and his social circle included showbiz figures such as Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. After long days on CONCACAF business, he’d frequently head to famed Upper East Side hangout Elaine’s, whose namesake — now deceased — he considered a friend. In Los Angeles during a Gold Cup, he once took 40 people to dine at Spago. Such lavishness was motivated, intimates say, by his belief that CONCACAF had to project a high-class image to raise its profile. And CONCACAF generally footed the bill.
“Chuck will do things for you — with other people’s money — but he’ll do it,” said Mel Brennan, whom Blazer hired in 2001 to handle special marketing projects and who left in 2003 when their relationship soured.
Under his reading of the Sportvertising contract, Blazer had CONCACAF pick up not only his work expenses but many personal ones as well. Blazer has lived in three different apartments in the Trump Tower, most recently a 2,000-square-foot unit on the 49th floor with a monthly rent of $18,000, much of which CONCACAF covered. In 2011 alone, he received $259,000 in “personal residence expenses” from the confederation, tax filings show. CONCACAF also bought, for Blazer’s personal use, a $48,500 Hummer SUV, which some employees said he chose because of his considerable size. CONCACAF paid more than $600 a month for parking, as well as auto insurance for Blazer and his girlfriend.
The cost of the Hummer and much of Blazer’s rent were over and above his contractual fees and commissions. CONCACAF’s share of the rent might have been justified because Blazer often used his apartment as a second office — working “in his underwear, with the lights off,” recalled Brennan. But CONCACAF’s offices were themselves in the Trump Tower, just an elevator ride away.
In many other cases, Blazer would deduct personal expenses — such as caterers, the phone company, and his housekeeper — from what he determined was his fee based on his 10% contract. In one sense, Blazer was just divvying up his fee into many different CONCACAF checks, which he himself signed, to people he would have otherwise had to pay personally. But tax attorneys say that paying third parties instead of an employee directly can be a strategy to avoid reporting income. Blazer did not respond to written questions asking if he reported such third-party payments.
Between 2007 and 2009, CONCACAF remitted at least $1.4 million toward the purchase of a time share in the new Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. The funds originally came from CONCACAF’s budget, but Blazer later changed the accounting, deducting the expenditure from his commissions. Records show that an offshore shell company controlled by Blazer owns the time share.
In 2010, the confederation also paid $810,000 for adjoining South Beach apartments, which it appears only Blazer used during his time at CONCACAF. The Florida properties, in the Mondrian South Beach Hotel Residences, are deeded to CONCACAF, but former employees say that was not common knowledge.
“I really didn’t know about the Miami apartment at all,” Fracisco said. “I always thought he stayed at a hotel.”
According to former CONCACAF employees, most of the confederation’s operating expenses were charged to an American Express account that Blazer controlled. Confederation records show that between 2004 and 2011, CONCACAF paid nearly $30 million on that AmEx account, of which $3 million were Blazer’s personal expenses. At the end of each year, Blazer would reckon his accounts and deduct any of those costs from his side of the ledger. The AmEx points, however, redounded to Blazer, and he at times used them for companions to accompany him when he traveled first class on CONCACAF’s dime.
In 1995, Blazer’s wife, Susan, filed for divorce. She now works as a business consultant in Connecticut and declined to comment for this story. Since then, he frequently has been photographed with Miss Universe contestants. For years, his girlfriend was an actress and author named Mary Lynn Blanks, who had been a regular on All My Children and As the World Turns in the 1970s and ‘80s. Blanks did not return requests seeking comment.
The largesse extended to Blazer’s family and social circle. For several years, for example, Sunil Gulati, who befriended Blazer when both were managing regional all-star teams in the late 1970s, was given office space in the CONCACAF headquarters free of charge. Gulati declined to comment on the record.
CONCACAF employed Blazer’s son, Jason, a physical therapist, as director of its medical department for three years starting in 2009; in 2011, his compensation was $110,961. Jason Blazer did not return calls and emails seeking comment. (Blazer’s daughter, Marci, an attorney, served on FIFA’s legal committee. She also did not respond to requests for comment.)
Checks drawn against CONCACAF’s account, signed by Blazer, went to a dizzying variety of recipients. One check, to IndyMac bank in the amount of $1,827.70, said simply “Miguel mortgage” in the memo field. According to former employees, Miguel Rivera, facilities manager at CONCACAF, was an old friend of Blazer’s tasked largely with caring for his pet Macaw, a big blue squawker named Max.
CONCACAF funds also went to at least one of Blazer’s outside business ventures. In 2000, worldwide TV rights to the World Cup were owned by a German company, Kirch Media. That year, Blazer, using a DBA called MultiSport Games Development Inc., joined with Kirch to start an interactive gambling concern. Together, Blazer and Kirch licensed technology that would allow for real-time betting on sports directly through the television set. Records show that more than $6 million of Blazer’s CONCACAF commissions were paid directly to MultiSport; Blazer also raised at least $1.5 million for the venture from outside investors.
The potential conflicts of interest were stark. Blazer was partly responsible for selling the World Cup’s television rights. Kirch had purchased those rights. Now they were setting up a company to enable betting on the World Cup through TV sets. In December 2001, FIFA President Sepp Blatter addressed Blazer’s venture in a press conference, saying the association needed “to establish a code of conduct to avoid such situations for members of the executive committee.”
The gambling operation never got off the ground. Kirch declared bankruptcy and lost the FIFA rights; the joint venture soon collapsed as well.
Still, what seemed a disaster proved another opportunity: After Kirch’s exit, Blazer advised FIFA to manage its television rights in-house, much as he had been doing for CONCACAF. FIFA heeded the advice and profits soared, with the body netting a record $631 million profit between 2007 and 2010. In 2010, Blazer was named chairman of FIFA’s Marketing and TV Committee.
One of Blazer’s greatest successes came when he persuaded the FIFA ExCo to block an agreement to sell NBC the U.S. rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for $350 million. Instead, Blazer helped hammer out a package deal: Univision and ESPN paid a combined $425 million for those rights, and ESPN also agreed to pay to carry Major League Soccer. That marked a major reversal: For the previous decade, the struggling soccer league had actually been paying ESPN to show its matches.
Last month, the MLS signed eight-year deals with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision worth a combined $720 million, or roughly $90 million a year. That’s still far below the National Football League’s more than $5 billion a year in TV money or Major League Baseball’s roughly $2.25 billion a year. Still, “it’s no understatement to say that Chuck brought soccer into the modern television age almost single-handedly,” said Logan, the former MLS commissioner.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things went south between Blazer and Warner.
Throughout his career, Warner has been dogged by allegations of corruption, including several related to ticket sales. For the 1989 World Cup qualifier versus the U.S. in Trinidad, for example, Warner, then the head of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation, allegedly engineered the sale of 60% more tickets than there were seats in the venue, pocketing the extra money. Although almost 35,000 people managed to squeeze into a stadium built to hold 28,500, some 10,000 additional ticket holders were stuck outside, furious, and the stands were so packed that the players had to be carried by hand over the crowd onto the pitch.
Warner was also accused of making upwards of $1.3 million from sales of marked up ticket packages to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and he allegedly appropriated nearly $200,000 donated to aid Haiti earthquake victims.
In response to an email detailing these and other allegations, Warner, a member of Trinidad and Tobago’s parliament, said they were all “totally untrue.” He also said he would alert his lawyers “so that they can stand by to take such action as may be deemed appropriate” if BuzzFeed published the allegations. He declined further comment.
Time and again, Warner’s most vocal defender had been Blazer. He called the 1989 ticket scandal “a lot of noise and press” with “very little credibility.” When FIFA rebuked Warner because a travel agency his family owned allegedly resold World Cup tickets at huge markup, Blazer chalked it up to changes in ticketing policies, saying, “It sounds worse than it was.” Warner denied wrongdoing.
But Warner’s increasingly thorny public demeanor may have made it more difficult to defend him.
In October 2009, speaking in London at the Leaders in Football summit — a kind of TED Talks for soccer — he complained that while Australia had given him a pricey gift bag on his arrival, England had not. Both were bidding for the 2018 World Cup. “Why isn’t there a bag for England?” Warner asked. “This is the type of thing that loses you a bid.”
Around that time, Blazer reversed an earlier plan to acquire adjacent condos for him and Warner at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. “It became clear that continuing with side by side units were unwise since his stability was clearly questionable by then,” Blazer wrote.
Kevin Payne, who until last fall was the president of the D.C. United MLS team and has spent more than three decades in the sport, said he believes the two were driven further apart in late 2010, when they voted on which nation would host the 2022 World Cup.
FIFA’s ExCo votes by secret ballot, and Blazer’s was never in doubt: He longed for the United States to host the Cup again. Warner, too, had long promised that he would cast his lot for the United States, and he publicly claimed that he did indeed vote for the U.S. But in the end, it was tiny Qatar — which has never qualified for a World Cup and is so hot during tournament season that it plans to build air-conditioned stadiums — that won the day. This March, press reports emerged that Warner and his family received almost $2 million from a Qatari concern in exchange for his vote, an allegation that Warner has dismissed as a “witch hunt.”
“I was in the room in Zurich when the announcements were made,” said Payne. “I think Chuck was pretty upset and hurt. It’s just inconceivable that Warner wouldn’t vote for the U.S.”
Ultimately, Blazer took an axe to their relationship: On May 24, 2011, Blazer informed FIFA of an alleged attempt by Warner and fellow ExCo member Mohamed Bin Hammam to offer bribes for votes. Bin Hammam, a Qatari, was making a run at the FIFA presidency, and, at a meeting of Caribbean soccer officials arranged by Warner earlier that month, delegates were allegedly given paper bags containing $40,000 in cash.
A secret videotape shot by someone attending a meeting the following day showed Warner discussing “the gift you received yesterday” and urging the delegates to vote for Bin Hammam. “I know there are some people here who believe they are more pious than thou,” Warner said. “If you are pious go to a church, friends, but the fact is our business is our business.”
Blazer’s revelations set off a firestorm. Warner, who denied he had done anything improper, was quickly suspended by FIFA and in less than three weeks resigned his positions at FIFA and CONCACAF. Bin Hammam, who has professed innocence, was banned for life from all soccer activities by FIFA, although the Court for Arbitration of Sport ultimately annulled that ban. This week, a new exposé alleged that Bin Hammam paid millions of dollars in bribes to bring the World Cup to Qatar.
In the wake of the 2011 scandal, Blazer, who would collect nearly $5 million from CONCACAF that year, was hailed as a whistleblower, a hero, and a force for cleaning up the sport. That September, he surprised the organizers of the Forest Hills High School 50th reunion by picking up the tab for a Friday night cocktail party in the Trump Tower. “He had two bands, videographer, open bar, and great hors d’oeuvres. Not a trivial event,” said Murray Vale, co-chair of the reunion. “We were stupefied. He was very successful in what he did and he shared.”
Scarcely two weeks later, as evidence of his self-dealing started to emerge, Blazer learned that CONCACAF’s new leadership planned to terminate him and that he should cease payments to himself pending an investigation. Blazer got ahead of the news by announcing that he would resign from CONCACAF that December. In interviews, he said he was bored. “This has been the best job in the world, but I need some action,” Blazer said. “People should seriously consider me for a top CEO.”
On Nov. 10, he instructed CONCACAF’s Florida bank to pay $1.4 million to Sportvertising’s Caymans bank account, funds he has refused to return because he says the confederation owes him money.
Although Blazer’s 21-year run at CONCACAF came to an end in December 2011, he continued to access his office at the confederation until the following April. That June, Warner unleashed his own allegations of abuse and corruption against Blazer.
CONCACAF appointed a retired U.S. federal judge, the former chief justice of Barbados’ high court, and a former Panamanian partner at auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers Interamerica to conduct an investigation into Blazer and Warner. But by the time they got to the Trump Tower, Blazer’s office had been cleaned out. And, the investigators later wrote, they were “unable to collect documents from the computers primarily used by Blazer because, according to witnesses, Blazer most often used his own computers for CONCACAF business.”
Contacted by investigators, Blazer said the confederation owed him $7 million, including $5.2 million for broadcast rights to Gold Cups running through 2021. “The amount owed to Mr. Blazer is very substantial,” wrote his attorney, Stuart I. Friedman, to the CONCACAF Integrity Committee. He said Blazer would decline “to engage in production of documents or participation in interviews.”
The final report, released in April 2013, was devastating, revealing over 113 pages how Blazer and Warner accumulated power and wealth over the years. But Tim Treanor, an attorney at Sidley Austin, the white-shoe firm retained to help with the probe, said it had limitations. “We weren’t interested in what he did before CONCACAF or non-CONCACAF activities during his time there,” Treanor said.
In February of last year, Blazer announced that he would not seek reelection to FIFA’s ExCo. He was replaced by one of his oldest allies, Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who initially said he would usher in new transparency by disclosing his FIFA compensation. He has not done so.
Soon thereafter, FIFA suspended Blazer for various breaches of its code of ethics. In August, FIFA’s chief investigator, Robert Torres, said he had received written confirmation that Blazer would not participate in any soccer-related activities for the remainder of the year and thus would suspend the association’s probe into Blazer’s conduct until sometime in 2014. Late last month, Torres declined comment on when the probe might resume.
In recent months, Blazer has kept a low profile, writing on his blog only once — to congratulate his Russian friend Valery Gergiev for being a flag bearer at the Sochi Olympics. Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is close to Putin and has publicly sided with the administration’s stances on homosexuality and Pussy Riot.
In April, Blazer underwent surgery for an undisclosed illness; reached shortly before then in his Trump Tower apartment, he declined an interview request, saying he needed to focus on his health. He did not respond to subsequent communications.
On a February evening in 1986, more than 8,200 people crammed into Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium to watch a band of local all-stars lose to the Canadian national team, 2–0. In that sleepier era of American soccer, with little popular interest in the game, it was standing room only for a meaningless exhibition in a run-down venue.
Before kickoff, the Canadians had to belt out their own national anthem from midfield, because nobody had thought to bring a recording. Star-spangled uniforms donated to the South Florida International All-Stars never arrived, so they borrowed some from a local amateur squad.
The fans didn’t mind. The match itself was incidental; they were there to honor Colin “Panther” Fowles, a former area pro who had been killed by a stray bullet during a pickup game the previous August. His supporters happily forked over $4 for tickets: Proceeds would benefit Allison Fowles and her three young daughters.
But the grieving widow would receive less than hoped, thanks to a ruling by a United States Soccer Federation executive in New York. He argued that bylaws guaranteed the USSF a cut of the gate for any match involving an international team on American soil. Organizers pleaded for a waiver, arguing that Fowles’ widow sorely needed help, but the federation’s executive vice president would not relent.
Chuck Blazer insisted on 10%.