By Mary Papenfuss
June 10, 2016
America's 'Mr Football' Chuck Blazer was blown away by his visit with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Much later, the portly New Yorker with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair would go undercover with the FBI in an operation that would result in the biggest corruption crackdown in Fifa history.
But before the axe fell, Blazer liked to brag that he was "treated like royalty" as a member of the all-powerful Executive Committee (Ex-Co) of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Standing in Buckingham Palace on a March day in 2004, cocktail glass in hand with the Queen, was evidence of that boast.
Blazer's Achilles heel would turn out to be his US taxes: he wasn't paying any.
Ex-co members and their spouses were gathered at the palace as part of their ultra-luxe European tour and celebration of Fifa's 100th anniversary. Blazer and his girlfriend, Mary Lynn Blanks, had been presented to Her Royal Majesty and Prince Philip, and now the Queen was chatting up her guests, speaking French to Michele Platini, and his wife, Crystal, and Spanish to Argentinian Julio Grondona.
That's when Blazer suddenly turned to Blanks and quietly commanded: "Give me your glass." She assumed he was "being thoughtful" and would place the empty crystal on a server's tray. Instead, he "palmed his glass and mine and slipped them into the pockets of his suit jacket," she recalled. "I was appalled. 'Please don't do that,' I begged him."
But Blazer was a Yankee boob in King Arthur's Court. He swiped the glasses marked with the EIIR royal sigil — for Elizabeth II Regina — so he could display them for years to come atop the glass shelves of his bar at his Trump Tower home in midtown Manhattan. Blazer's pal Donald Trump had his own European pretensions, turning his penthouse home at the top of the same building into an ersatz replica of Versailles.
Blazer's sleight-of-hand at Buckingham Palace perfectly characterized his career at the top of Fifa. As the only American on the 24-member Ex-Co for 17 years, he often felt like a poseur, a 450-pound sticky-fingered barbarian amid European elegance.
But Chuck also possessed American business moxie, something the Ex-Co men like then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter, treasured. Blazer initially utilised his marketing know-how as general secretary of Fifa's regional organization Concacaf (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) to transform it from a tottering organization barely making ends meet into a money-minting machine.
Once he moved up to Fifa's Ex-Co in 1996, Blazer constantly pressed for more match series to further stoke the hunger for the Beautiful Game, especially in the burgeoning US market. He also convinced Fifa to renegotiate American media rights packages to forge record deals.
He stuffed his own pockets along the way, just as he had done with the Queen's glasses. He lived virtually expense free on Fifa and Concacaf's dime. Concacaf covered his $26,000-a-month rent in Trump Tower for his own apartment and an adjoining one for his two cats plagued by leaky bladders.
The hustler, who grew up in Queens and cut his teeth pitching promotional give-aways like sun-tan lotion shrink-wrapped in a Frisbee, was suddenly an apex glutton, shot to the top by selling football. He lived a life few could imagine:
- He racked up $29m (£20m) in expenses on his black AMEX card in a single seven-year period.
- He used Concacaf funds to purchase get-away homes in Miami Beach and the Bahamas.
- For each of his several annual trips to Europe and elsewhere for Fifa, he had a chauffer-driven limo at his beck and call, and enjoyed pricey swag bags in his five-star hotel rooms packed with items including expensive watches, cameras, clothing, perfumes and lotions.
- Every time Blazer flew to Zurich on Fifa business he and usually a companion would each carry into the US just under $10,000 (£6,880) in cash — an amount that need not be reported to tax authorities under American law. On one trip, however, Blazer found himself unexpectedly over the limit, and raced into an airport boutique before takeoff to buy a $3,000 (£2,064) pearl necklace so he could get in under the cash limit. He didn't declare the necklace at Customs.
- Blazer blew $150,000 (£103,200) on a glass aviary inside his Concacaf office (also in Trump Tower) for his pet parrot Max. Blazer had his own office wide-screen TV that Max could see, but his master later awarded the bird his own television inside the aviary — at Concacaf expense — so the parrot could watch cartoons or animals on the Discovery Channel.
- Blazer's graft included pocketing lucrative bribes for Gold Cup tournaments in the US beginning in the early 1990s, and helping solicit a $10m bribe to arrange for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup, he confessed to a federal judge in a Brooklyn court.
- Blazer's putative boss at Concacaf, Jack Warner — considered the crook of Fifa crooks by some American investigators — enjoyed a world of corruption of his own, according to the US Department of Justice indictments. Something he liked to do on Blazer's turf in Manhattan was go shopping on Concacaf's tab for tech gifts — from cameras to laptop computers to iPhones — for friends and parishioners, who, he explained to a Blazer aide, were particularly important to the church-going Catholic. "I don't know how that works," Blazer told Blanks. "You thieve six days and go to church on the seventh."
Blazer's Achilles heel would turn out to be his US taxes: he wasn't paying any. When he finally confessed to Blanks that he had dodged taxes for decades, she asked him: "What were you thinking? You're going to end your life in a federal penitentiary." The morbidly obese, borderline diabetic, one-time chain smoker responded: "I thought I'd be dead before anyone caught up to me."
But the FBI and US Internal Revenue Service did catch up to him, armed with information that surfaced in the wake of a power struggle between Blazer and Warner. Two agents treed the big man outside Trump Tower as he was headed on his mobility scooter one November evening in 2011 to dine at a nearby steak restaurant.
They threatened to whisk him away in handcuffs right then if he didn't agree to cooperate in their ongoing investigation of Fifa. He agreed to snitch and would spend the next few years following the orders of his FBI handlers, wearing a recording device in a fob on his key chain, arranging meetings with colleagues and attempting to steer his cronies into incriminating comments. Some of those meetings included lunches, dinners and drinks while attending the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
Blazer unleashed a cascade of information that resulted in an unprecedented crackdown on sports corruption with the astounding arrests in May 2015 at the Bauer au Lac hotel in Zurich at Fifa's annual meeting. The first wave of indictments named 14 Fifa leaders and sports business executives, the next round raised the total to 41. Only eight have yet to agree to plead guilty. The rest are working out plea deals and turning over even more information to authorities that will almost inevitably trigger still more charges against others.
A year after that first arrest wave, now as the Euro is underway, what has changed for world soccer administration? Men are under house arrest, fortunes have been lost in penalties and payment of tax debt, prison sentences loom, leaders have been bounced from office.
A new Fifa administration, headed by Gianni Infantino in the wake of the indictments, vowed reform. But the books of the non-profit association that pays no taxes are still a mystery, with income and payments a secret.
Markus Kattner, who stepped in as acting secretary general to replace disgraced Jérôme Valcke for the "new" Fifa, has already been fired by the organization over accusations that he helped himself to millions of dollars in compensation without authorisation.
Now US investigators say they have found evidence in a safe in Kattner's office that a small group of Fifa's top officials, including Valcke and former president Sepp Blatter, allegedly paid each other some $80m (£55m) in undisclosed bonuses and other compensation.
Blazer unleashed a cascade of information that resulted in an unprecedented crackdown on sports corruption with the astounding arrests in May 2015.
Infantino himself is in trouble for reportedly calling for the deletion of recordings of a meeting by the new Fifa council (there's no longer an Ex-Co) in Mexico City where a resolution was passed giving members the power to appoint or dismiss those on its independent watchdog committee.
Domenico Scala, chairman of the independent Fifa audit and compliance panel, resigned the next day in protest, saying the change "undermines a central pillar of the good governance of Fifa and it destroys a substantial achievement of the reforms."
Infantino could face suspension from the Fifa presidency for attempting to delete the recordings, according to Die Welt.
Chuck Blazer likely won't witness all the Fifa fallout his cooperation instigated. He is gravely ill and in hospice care, reportedly unable to speak. He has paid millions of dollars in penalties and is awaiting sentencing as part of a plea deal with the feds.
Meanwhile, football survives and fans champion their teams. Fifa goes on.
"Fifa is a monster," said an associate of an unindicted co-conspirator referred to in the massive US court case. "When you cut off one corrupt head, ten others pop up."