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Following the money in soccer’s biggest scandal

A FIFA logo sits next to the entrance at the FIFA headquarters on June 3, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland.  Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

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The World Cup began on Thursday. It is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world. It’s also a multibillion-dollar business with TV distribution deals, sponsorships — and corruption. Lots of corruption. The story of FIFA, the international soccer governing body, is also a story of bribery, international intrigue, a former spy who compiled a dossier on President Donald Trump and a guy who walked around with a parrot on his shoulder. All of this is real. And it’s part of the new book “Red Card,” which focuses on the 2015 case in which U.S. prosecutors went after FIFA and indicted 14 people. Ken Bensinger, the book’s author, is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed. He joined Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary to talk about the book and the FIFA scandal. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Lizzy O’Leary: I want to start with a story that sounds kind of benign but it’s important. So we’re going to go back to 2010 and there’s this guy Chuck Blazer who is a very colorful figure in U.S. soccer. He decides to deposit a check in his Merrill Lynch account here in New York City. It sounds like such a super normal thing to do. What is happening? Why is it so important?

Ken Bensinger: Chuck Blazer was the highest-ranking American soccer official probably ever in world soccer. He was a soccer dad from suburban New York from Westchester County who climbed to the very highest heights of world soccer, was one of the 24 most powerful man on FIFA’s executive committee, and little known to 99.9 percent of the soccer world, he was also incredibly corrupt. That check that he deposited was in fact a piece of bribe money that he received in exchange for his vote to give South Africa the 2010 World Cup. He’d done that years earlier, but the money had been coming to him in little drips and drabs over the years and that check he deposited into his account in Merrill Lynch rather than sending it to his secret offshore bank accounts in the Caribbean. And as a result, an IRS agent saw the account number, saw that it was an American bank and used that to start the first subpoena against Chuck Blazer, secret subpoena. And that subpoena opened up the case against Chuck Blazer and allowed the IRS to grab him and secretly corner and flip him in a building next to the Trump Tower in late 2011.

O’Leary: One of the reasons I have you on the show is not just because this book is so fascinating but because so much of the prosecution against FIFA and the people involved comes down to things like taxes and bank accounts and following the money. How did U.S. IRS agents and FBI agents put this prosecution together?

Bensinger: Yeah, that’s exactly it. This is really a money laundering case more than anything else and —

O’Leary: It just happens to be in soccer?

Bensinger: It happens to be in soccer. I mean, you know, if you read this book looking for reports about matches and who’s scored what goal, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you want to find out the fascinating world of how you can trace money all around the globe through correspondent banks and transfers through the clearance house interbanking transfer system, then, well, you’re set. And the most dramatic example of that was as a Brazilian who was convicted, and they showed how money started here went to this company. They show the contract, then they show the money go to this place, they showed another contract, and you follow it around until finally the last step it ends up in a Morgan Stanley account in the U.S. Then they show the debit card activity of that Morgan Stanley account. And they show this guy who was the account holder went and bought $50,000 worth of stuff at Hermès with the money from that account within weeks of receiving it.

O’Leary: One of the things I think that struck me as an American who pays sort of glancing attention to soccer, to football, unlike the rest of the world, was how brazen some of the schemes involved are. For example just the outright bribery. Can you explain a little bit about how that works? How say the World Cup ends up in Russia or in South Africa and the vote buying that happened.

Bensinger: Yes that’s one probably the most high profile kind of bribery is the vote buying, right. You have different buys than FIFA that are in charge making these huge decisions for a sport like where the World Cup is held and until recently that was determined by a small group of people. And so those countries that wanted to win had a very limited target list. They knew exactly who needed to get the money to. And so then it was just a matter of finding them and meeting them in a quiet place when no one was around and offering them whatever they wanted: money, gifts, women, artworks, whatever it was to get them to commit their vote, right. And these are the accusations levied against bidders in almost every round for the last 10, 15 or 20 years. So that’s one kind of bribery. But there’s a whole other set of bribery that ends up becoming a nucleus of the U.S. case and one that’s much less understood. And that kind of bribery is, we can think of as the commercial aspect of soccer — or football, as the rest of the world calls it — and that is where the real money is, which is television and sponsorship, right? This is the golden goose soccer, something that everyone in the world wants to watch. There was about twice as many people who are followers of the faith of football than the faith of Catholicism, right?

O’Leary: Which you lay out using Brazil as the description.

Bensinger: Right, Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, but they like football more. And so the television rights are very valuable right? And soccer administrators, the officials who run the different soccer associations in every country and every continent figured out that if that some people would be willing to pay them under the table bribes in exchange for very sweet deals for those rights. And that’s the great sort of soccer corruption that no one really understood until this case broke it open, was just the day-after-day bribe payments that sort of undermined the whole sport and were low profile perhaps and where the World Cup is but didn’t happen every six years or every four years, that happened every day.

O’Leary: I think if the majority of Americans know anything about FIFA, they know that it’s corrupt. Why did it take these sort of slogs through everyday transactions and an IRS agent, an FBI agent well versed in prosecuting the mafia to actually make a prosecution stick?

Bensinger: It’s hard for Americans, hard for us to understand the political influence that soccer has in the rest of the world. In other countries, it’s sort of as if you could mash all the U.S. sports leagues into one — hockey, baseball, basketball and football — if you could smash them all into one thing, it sort of gives you an idea of how powerful it is. And in these countries, they’re frankly afraid. You really sense that politicians are afraid. Law enforcement is afraid to dip their toe in this. And the history of criminal investigations of what has been sort of the open secret of corruption at FIFA is incredibly limited. No one was willing to do it because the political costs were too high. We’re in the U.S., the truth is soccer is maybe No. 4, or No. 5 sport. And so that in a sense gave the political cover for an American investigation to open. You know they were going to get hauled before a Senate committee and demanded to know why they were messing with the gold, you know, this golden prize.

O’Leary: That is also the knock against this case that maybe the Americans were somehow jealous or they felt out of the loop. You write about this a little bit, the sort of animosity toward American law enforcement. It was like, “Well, you guys don’t really get soccer anyway.”

Ken Bensinger: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s not the truth. The FBI agents who opened the case knew almost nothing about soccer, didn’t care about, didn’t hate it either, really had no opinion about it. And in that sense it’s a bit prosaic and a little bit mundane. The case opened because they had a good tip and they were interested in it. And so they just ran with that.

Lizzy O’Leary: So the U.S.— hey, 2026 World Cup. Is that a good thing?

Bensinger: I think it’s a good thing. I mean, as a soccer fan to some degree, I’m happy because I get to take my kids, you know. It’s a lot easier even probably hauling them across the world to Morocco to go to events. So on a very parochial level, that’s good. But I think it’s also great because I think for the sport, if Morocco had won, it would look very suspicious. It would look like another black mark on the sport, and instead bring it to the U.S. and to Canada and to Mexico is a sign that they’re headed maybe in the right direction. The U.S. was presenting a cleaner kind of bid, and we’re trying to show sort of a transparent way to do things. So I think that’s, in the long run, probably good for the sport. And I think for FIFA, which has serious financial problems now in the wake of this criminal investigation — all these sponsors pulled out and then all these legal bills from American law firms piled up, they’re hugely in the red, which is something that never used to happen — they need an economic winner. And it is almost no question that a tournament in North America is going to make a ton of money.

O’Leary: Is FIFA less corrupt now?

Bensinger: Maybe marginally. You know, it’s important to think of the way that the prosecutor did about this case, which is this is like a large enterprise with deep-rooted criminal culture, essentially. Doesn’t mean that soccer is intrinsically corrupt, but it has sort of been infected, is a way to think of it, with the kind of corruption or a kind of cancer of corruption. And you could think of this as like that first round of chemotherapy, right, and you sort of knock out the cancer, but it doesn’t mean that the cancer cells aren’t circulating around in the blood and that this culture of people believing that soccer is some sort of land grab where they can make as much money as they want. That whole culture has to change, and you can’t do it overnight because when you knocked off the head the Blatters of the world, the next people to come up kind of came up in the same culture. To change that’s going to take a long time. And I think a lot of people said, “Well, this investigation happened. Why isn’t soccer clean yet?” And I think the answer is, you know, no one in the case ever expected it to be clean overnight. They expected it sort of — another metaphor might be a sick tree. You cut off the rotten part and hope that it regrows and gets strong again.

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