On the morning of May 27, 2015, Swiss police officers raided the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich and arrested nine of the world’s top soccer officials on behalf of the United States government. In the coming days, the world would learn about deep-seated corruption throughout FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, that stretched from its top ranks to its regional confederations to its marketing partners around the world.
Top soccer officials from across North, South and Central America and the Caribbean were among those implicated in the case, which also brought down top executives from sports marketing firms that had bribed their way into controlling the broadcast and sponsorship rights associated with soccer’s biggest events. FIFA’s longtime president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, eventually resigned in disgrace.
It was the biggest organized-corruption scandal in sports history, and some within FIFA were skeptical of the Americans’ motives. In 2010 the U.S. had bid to host the 2022 World Cup, only to lose a contentious vote to Qatar. For FIFA officials, it felt like a case of sour grapes.
But as BuzzFeed investigative reporter Ken Bensinger chronicles in his new book, Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal, the investigation’s origins began before FIFA handed the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar. The case had actually begun as an FBI probe into an illegal gambling ring the bureau believed was run by people with ties to Russian organized crime outfits. The ring operated out of Trump Tower in New York City.
Eventually, the investigation spread to soccer, thanks in part to an Internal Revenue Service agent named Steve Berryman, a central figure in Bensinger’s book who pieced together the financial transactions that formed the backbone of the corruption allegations. But first, it was tips from British journalist Andrew Jennings and Christopher Steele ― the former British spy who is now known to American political observers as the man behind the infamous so-called “pee tape” dossier chronicling now-President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia ― that pointed the Americans’ attention toward the Russian World Cup, and the decades of bribery and corruption that had transformed FIFA from a modest organization with a shoestring budget into a multibillion-dollar enterprise in charge of the world’s most popular sport. Later, the feds arrested and flipped Chuck Blazer, a corrupt American soccer official and member of FIFA’s vaunted Executive Committee. It was Blazer who helped them crack the case wide open, as HuffPost’s Mary Papenfuss and co-author Teri Thompson chronicled in their book American Huckster, based on the 2014 story they broke of Blazer’s role in the scandal.
Russia’s efforts to secure hosting rights to the 2018 World Cup never became a central part of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s case. Thanks to Blazer, it instead focused primarily on CONCACAF, which governs soccer in the Caribbean and North and Central America, and other officials from South America.
But as Bensinger explained in an interview with HuffPost this week, the FIFA case gave American law enforcement officials an early glimpse into the “Machiavellian Russia” of Vladimir Putin “that will do anything to get what it wants and doesn’t care how it does it.” And it was Steele’s role in the earliest aspects of the FIFA case, coincidentally, that fostered the relationship that led him to hand his Trump dossier to the FBI ― the dossier that has now helped form “a big piece of the investigative blueprint,” as Bensinger said, that former FBI director Robert Mueller is using in his probe of Russian meddling in the election that made Trump president.
Ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final, which will take place in Moscow, HuffPost spoke with Bensinger about Red Card, the parallels between the FIFA case and the current American political environment, FIFA’s reform efforts, and whether the idea of corruption-free global soccer is at all possible.
The following is a lightly edited transcription of our discussion.
You start by addressing the main conspiracy theory around this, which is that this was a case of sour grapes from the United States losing out on hosting the 2022 World Cup. But the origin was a more traditional FBI investigation into Russian organized crime, right?
That’s correct. And there are sort of these weird connections to everything going on in the political sphere in our country, which I think is interesting because when I was reporting the book out, it was mostly before the election. It was a time when Christopher Steele’s name didn’t mean anything. But what I figured out over time is that this had nothing to do with sour grapes, and the FBI agents who opened the case didn’t really care about losing the World Cup. The theory was that the U.S. investigation was started because the U.S. lost to Qatar, and Bill Clinton or Eric Holder or Barack Obama or somebody ordered up an investigation.
What happened was that the investigation began in July or August 2010, four or five months before the vote happened. It starts because this FBI agent, who’s a long-term Genovese crime squad guy, gets a new squad ― the Eurasian Organized Crime Squad ― which is primarily focused on Russian stuff. It’s a squad that’s squeezed of resources and not doing much because under Robert Mueller, who was the FBI director at the time, the FBI was not interested in traditional crime-fighting. They were interested in what Mueller called transnational crime. So this agent looked for cases that he thought would score points with Mueller. And one of the cases they’re doing involves the Trump Tower. It’s this illegal poker game and sports book that’s partially run out of the Trump Tower. The main guy was a Russian mobster, and the FBI agent had gone to London ― that’s how he met Steele ― to learn about this guy. Steele told him what he knew, and they parted amicably, and the parting shot was, “Listen, if you have any other interesting leads in the future, let me know.”
It was the first sort of sign of the Russia we now understand exists, which is kind of a Machiavellian Russia that will do anything to get what it wants and doesn’t care how it does it.
Steele had already been hired by the English bid for the 2018 World Cup at that point. What Chris Steele starts seeing on behalf of the English bid is the Russians doing, as it’s described in the book, sort of strange and questionable stuff. It looks funny, and it’s setting off alarm bells for Steele. So he calls the FBI agent back, and says, “You should look into what’s happening with the World Cup bid.” And my sense is the FBI agent, at that point, says something along the lines of: “What’s the World Cup? And what’s FIFA?”
He really didn’t know much about it, to the point that when he comes back to New York and opens the case, it’s sort of small and they don’t take it too seriously. They were stymied, trying to figure out how to make it a case against Russia. Meanwhile, the vote happens and Russia wins its bid for the 2018 World Cup.
So it’s more a result of the U.S. government’s obsession, if you will, with Russia and Russian crime generally?
The story would be different if this particular agent was on a different squad. But he was an ambitious agent just taking over a squad and trying to make a name for himself. This was his first management job, and he wanted to make big cases. He decides to go after Russia in Russia as a way to make a splash. It’s tempting to look at this as a reflection of the general U.S. writ large obsession with Russia, which certainly exists, but it’s also a different era. This was 2009, 2010. This was during the Russian reset. It was Obama’s first two years in office. He’s hugging Putin and talking about how they’re going to make things work. Russia is playing nice-nice. The public image is fairly positive in that period. It wasn’t, “Russia’s the great enemy.” It was more like, “Russia can be our friend!”
That’s what I find interesting about this case is that, what we see in Russia’s attempt to win the World Cup by any means is the first sort of sign of the Russia we now understand exists, which is kind of a Machiavellian Russia that will do anything to get what it wants and doesn’t care how it does it. It was like a dress rehearsal for that.
Steele has become this sort of household name in politics in the U.S., thanks to the Trump dossier. But here he is in the FIFA scandal. Was this coincidental, because he’s the Russia guy and we’re investigating Russia?
It’s one of these things that looks like an accident, but so much of world history depends on these accidents. Chris Steele, when he was still at MI-6, investigated the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was the Russian spy poisoned with polonium. It was Steele who ran that investigation and determined that Putin probably ordered it. And then Steele gets hired because of his expertise in Russia by the English bid, and he becomes the canary in the coal mine saying, “Uh oh, guys, it’s not going to be that easy, and things are looking pretty grim for you.”
That’s critical. I don’t know if that would have affected whether or not Chris Steele later gets hired by Fusion GPS to put together the Trump dossier. But it’s certain that the relationship he built because of the FIFA case meant that the FBI took it more seriously. The very same FBI agent that he gave the tip on FIFA to was the agent he calls up in 2016 to say, “I have another dossier.”
The FBI must get a crazy number of wild, outlandish tips all the time, but in this case, it’s a tip from Christopher Steele, who has proven his worth very significantly to the FBI. This is just a year after the arrests in Zurich, and the FBI and DOJ are feeling very good about the FIFA case, and they’re feeling very good about their relationship with Christopher Steele.
If we think about the significance of the dossier ― and I realize that we’ve learned that the FBI had already begun to look into Trump and Russia prior to having it ― it’s also clear that the dossier massively increased the size of the investigation, led to the FISA warrants where we’re listening to Carter Page and others, and formed a big piece of the investigative blueprint for Mueller today. Steele proved his worth to the FBI at the right time, and that led to his future work being decisive.
To the investigation itself: In 2010, FIFA votes to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and you quote (now former) FIFA vice president Jérôme Valcke as saying, “This is the end of FIFA.” So there were some people within FIFA that saw this vote as a major turning point in its history?
I think he and others were recognizing this increasingly brazen attitude of the criminality within FIFA. They had gone from an organization where people were getting bribes and doing dirty stuff, but doing it very carefully behind closed doors. And it was transitioning to one where the impunity was so rampant that people thought they could do anything. And I think in his mind, awarding the World Cup to Russia under very suspicious circumstances and also awarding it to Qatar, which by any definition has no right to host this tournament, it felt to him and others like a step too far.
I don’t think he had any advance knowledge that the U.S. was poking around on it, but he recognized that it was getting out of hand. People were handing out cash bribes in practically broad daylight, and as corrupt as these people were, they didn’t tend to do that.
You write early in the book that this all started with the election, as FIFA president, of João Havelange in 1974. He takes advantage of modern marketing and media to begin to turn FIFA into the organization that we know today. Is it fair to say that this corruption scandal was four decades in the making?
I haven’t thought of it that way, but in a way, you’re right. The FIFA culture we know today didn’t start yesterday. It started in 1974 when this guy gets elected, and within a couple years, the corruption starts. And it starts with one bribe to Havelange, or one idea that he should be bribed. And it starts a whole culture, and the people all sort of learn from that same model. The dominoes fell over time. It’s not a new model, and things were getting more and more out of hand over time. FIFA had been able to successfully bat these challenges down over the years. There’s an attempted revolt in FIFA in 2001 or 2002 that Blatter completely shut down. The general secretary of FIFA was accusing Blatter and other people of either being involved in corruption or permitting corruption, and there’s a moment where it seems like the Executive Committee was going to turn against Blatter and vote him out and change everything. But they all blinked, and Blatter dispensed his own justice by getting rid of his No. 2 and putting in people who were going to be loyal to him. The effect of those things was more brazen behavior.
Everyone knew this was going on. Why didn’t it come to light sooner?
It was an open secret. I think it’s because soccer’s just too big and important in all these other countries. I think other countries have just never been able to figure out how to deal with it. The best you’d get was a few members of Parliament in England holding outraged press conferences or a few hearings, but nothing ever came of it. It’s just too much of a political hot potato because soccer elsewhere is so much more important than it is the U.S. People are terrified of offending the FIFA gods.
There’s a story about how Andrew Jennings, this British journalist, wanted to broadcast a documentary detailing FIFA corruption just a week or so before the 2010 vote, and when the British bid and the British government got a hold of it, they tried really hard to stifle the press. They begged the BBC not to air the documentary until after the vote, because they were terrified of FIFA. That’s reflective of the kind of attitudes that all these countries have.
A lot of the things that resulted from the bribery and the corruption, or that were done to facilitate bribery and corruption, helped grow the sport here. The Gold Cup, the Women’s World Cup, the growth of the World Cup and Copa America. To the average fan, these are “good” developments for the sport. And yet, they were only created to make these guys rich. How do you square that?
Well, it reminds me of questions about Chuck Blazer. Is he all bad, or all good? He’s a little bit of both. The U.S. women’s national team probably wouldn’t exist without him. The Women’s World Cup probably wouldn’t either. Major League Soccer got its first revenue-positive TV deal because of Chuck Blazer.
A lot of these guys were truly surprised. If they thought they were doing something wrong, they didn’t think it was something that anyone cared about.
At the same time, he was a corrupt crook that stole a lot of money that could’ve gone to the game. And so, is he good or bad? Probably more bad than good, but he’s not all bad.
That applies to the Gold Cup. The Gold Cup is a totally artificial thing that was made up ultimately as a money-making scheme for Blazer, but in the end, it’s probably benefited soccer in this country. So it’s clearly not all bad.
You’d like to think that we could take these things that end up being a good idea, and clean them up and wash away the bad.
Blazer is a fascinating figure, and it seems like there are hints of sympathy for him and some of the other corrupt players in the book. Were all of these guys hardened criminals, or did they get wrapped up in how the business worked, and how it had worked for so long?
There’s no question he’s greedy. But there’s something about the culture of corruption that it can almost sneak up on a person. Blazer had a longer history of it. He always had a touch of corruption about him. But I think a lot of the officials in the sport came up because they loved the sport and wanted to be involved in running it. And then they found out that people were lining their pockets and they thought: “Everyone else is doing it. I’d be a fool not to participate in this.”
And when they end up getting arrested and charged, it’s not the same as a mafia guy in Brooklyn. A lot of these guys were truly surprised. If they thought they were doing something wrong, they didn’t think it was something that anyone cared about. They clearly aren’t innocent, and they went to great lengths to hide it. But at the same time, the impunity came from a culture of believing it was OK to do that stuff. And this really was a case of the FBI and DOJ pulling the rug out from under these people.
One point you stress in the book is that fundamentally, this was a crime against the development of the sport, particularly in poorer nations and communities. How did FIFA’s corruption essentially rob development money from the lower levels of soccer?
That’s something that took me a little while to understand. But when I understood the way the bribery took place, it became clearer to me. The money stolen from the sport isn’t just the bribes. Let’s say I’m a sports marketing firm, and I bribe you a million dollars to sign over a rights contract to me. The first piece of it is that million dollars that could have gone to the sport. But it’s also the opportunity cost: What would the value of those rights have been if it was taken to the free market instead of a bribe?
All that money is taken away from the sport. And the second thing was traveling to South America and seeing the conditions of soccer for fans, for kids and for women. That was really eye-opening. There are stadiums in Argentina and Brazil that are absolutely decrepit. And people would explain, the money that was supposed to come to these clubs never comes. You have kids still playing with the proverbial ball made of rags and duct tape, and little girls who can’t play because there are no facilities or leagues for women at all. When you see that, and then you see dudes making millions in bribes and also marketing guys making far more from paying the bribes, I started to get indignant about it. FIFA always ties itself to children and the good of the game. But it’s absurd when you see how they operate. The money doesn’t go to kids. It goes to making soccer officials rich.
Former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati pops up a couple times. He’s friends with Blazer, he ends up with a seat on the Executive Committee. Is there a chance U.S. Soccer is wrapped up in this, and we just don’t know about it yet?
I will say that I don’t believe Gulati is a cooperator. People wonder that and it’s reasonable. It’s curious how this guy who came up in Blazer’s shadow and rose to so much power, and literally had office space in the CONCACAF offices, could be clean. And he might not be clean, but more likely, he’s the kind of guy who decided to turn a blind eye to all the corruption and pretend he didn’t see it.
That said, there are legitimate questions about how U.S. Soccer operates that weirdly parallels a lot of the corruption that we saw in South America, the Caribbean and Central America. The relationship between U.S. Soccer, MLS and this entity called Soccer United Marketing ― that relationship is very questionable. MLS has the rights to the U.S. Soccer Federation wrapped up for years and years to come. There hasn’t been open bidding for those rights since 2002, I think it is. SUM has MLS, but it also has the rights for the U.S. Soccer Federation for men and women. There’s a lot of money to be made, and SUM’s getting all that, and since they haven’t put it out for public bid, it’s really not clear that U.S. Soccer is getting full value for its product. And in that sense it parallels the sort of corruption we saw.
What do you make of FIFA’s reform efforts?
FIFA is battling itself as it tries to reform itself. I’m suspicious of current FIFA president Gianni Infantino. This is a guy who grew up 6 miles from Sepp Blatter. His career echoes that. He was the general secretary of UEFA, which is not unlike being the general secretary of FIFA. Both of them are very similar in a lot of ways, in their ambitions and their role being the sport’s bureaucrat. Their promises to win elections by spilling money all over the place is just too similar. That said, I think Infantino recognizes that that culture is what led to these problems, and he sees an organization that’s in financial chaos right now. This World Cup’s going to bring in a lot of money, but the last three years have been massively income-negative. They’re losing money because of sponsors running away in droves and massive legal bills. I think he sees a pathway to financial security for FIFA by making more money and being more transparent.
When massive amounts of money mixes with a massively popular cultural phenomenon, is it ever going to be clean? It seems kind of hopeless.
But he still talks about patronage and handing out money, and federations around the world are still getting busted for taking bribes. The Ghana football federation got dissolved a week before the World Cup because a documentary came out that showed top officials taking bribes on secret camera. It’s still a deeply corrupt culture. Baby steps are being taken, but it seems like 42-plus years of corruption can’t be cleaned up in two or three years.
On that note, one of the marketing guys in the book says, “There will always be payoffs.” That stuck out to me, because I’m cynical about FIFA’s willingness or ability to clean this up at all. From your reporting, do you believe “there will always be payoffs” is the reality of the situation, given the structure of our major international sporting organizations?
This is like, “What is human nature all about?” When massive amounts of money mixes with a massively popular cultural phenomenon, is it ever going to be clean? I wish it would be different, but it seems kind of hopeless. How do you regulate soccer, and who can oversee this to make sure that people behave in an ethical, clean and fair way that benefits everyone else? It’s not an accident that every single international sports organization is based in Switzerland. The answer is because the Swiss, not only do they offer them a huge tax break, they also basically say, “You can do whatever you want and we’re not going to bother you.” That’s exactly what these groups want. Well, how do you regulate that?
I don’t think the U.S. went in saying, “We’re going to regulate soccer.” I think they thought if we can give soccer a huge kick in the ass, if we can create so much public and political pressure on them that sponsors will run away, they’ll feel they have no option but to react and clean up their act. It’s sort of, kick ’em where it hurts.
My cynicism about the ability for anyone to clean it up made me feel sorry for Steve Berryman, the IRS agent who’s one of the main investigators and one of your central characters. He said he’ll never stop until he cleans up the sport, and I couldn’t help but think, “That’ll never happen.”
That’s right. It’ll never happen. People like him are driven. It’s not just soccer for him. He cared so much about this. He felt, “I have to do this until it’s over, or else it’s a failed investigation.” I think people like him sometimes recognize that they can never get there, but it’s still disheartening, every piece of new corruption we see, and these guys think, “I’ve worked so hard, and ... ”
The World Cup is going on right now, it’s in Russia, and corruption has barely been a part of the story. Do you think the book and the upcoming Qatari World Cup will reinvigorate that conversation, or are people just resigned to the belief that this is what FIFA is?
There is some of that resignation. But also, the annoying but true reality of FIFA is that when the World Cup is happening, all the soccer fans around the world forget all their anger and just want to watch the tournament. For three and a half years, everyone bitches about what a mess FIFA is, and then during the World Cup everyone just wants to watch soccer. There could be some reinvigoration in the next few months when the next stupid scandal appears. And I do think Qatar could reinvigorate more of that. There’s a tiny piece of me that thinks we could still see Qatar stripped of the World Cup. That would certainly spur a lot of conversation about this.
You talk at the end of the book about a shift in focus to corruption in the Asian federation. Are DOJ and the FBI tying up loose ends, or are there deeper investigations still going?
There are clear signs that there’s more. This is still cleaning up pieces from the old case, but just Tuesday, a Florida company pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud in the FIFA case. It was a company that was known from the written indictments, but no one had known they were going to be pleading guilty, so it was a new piece of the case. This company’s going to pay $25 million in fines and forfeitures, and it was sort of a sign from DOJ that they have finished what they’re going to do.
That piece at the end of the book with the guy going off to the South Pacific is a guy named Richard Lai. He’s from Guam and he pleaded guilty in May or June of 2017. That was a pretty strong clue, too, that they’re looking at the Asian Football Confederation, which is the one that includes Qatar. I do know from sources that the cooperators in the case are still actively talking to prosecutors, and still spending many, many hours with them discussing many aspects of the case. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more. That said, a lot of the people who were involved in the case in the beginning have moved on. It’s natural to have some turnover, and people who inherit a case aren’t necessarily as emotionally bought into it as the people who started. So at some point, it could get old.
But not Steve Berryman. He’s still going?
Steve Berryman will never stop.