Blazer is witty, gregarious and a whistleblower

Chuck Blazer is a dead ringer for Santa Claus, has a pet parrot

that squawks in the background during phone calls, and blogs about

his travels and those of his friends – including Russian Prime

Minister Vladimir Putin. Accompanied by Putin’s own photos, no

less.

He is gregarious, witty and, with a list of confidantes and

contacts spanning the globe, seems an unlikely choice to spark the

worst crisis in FIFA’s 107-year history, accusing two officials of

offering Caribbean soccer leaders $40,000 each in exchange for

votes in the presidential election. But the only American on FIFA’s

powerful executive committee has spent 30 years promoting soccer

and has shown before that he will step in when he feels the game is

being shortchanged.

”He’s been a tireless advocate for soccer, not only in America

but in this hemisphere,” said John Skipper, the executive vice

president of content for ESPN, which has broadcast the last five

World Cups and has the rights to the 2014 event in Brazil.

Blazer accused FIFA vice president Jack Warner and fellow

executive committee member Mohamed bin Hammam of bribery in

connection with last Wednesday’s election. Bin Hammam had been the

lone challenger to Sepp Blatter, who was elected unopposed to a

fourth term after Warner and bin Hammam were suspended pending a

full investigation.

Accusations of shadiness are nothing new for FIFA. Blazer

himself was described by a federal judge as giving testimony that

was ”generally without credibility based on his attitude and

demeanor and on his evasive answers on cross-examination” when

MasterCard sued FIFA, alleging its sponsorship rights were

illegally terminated. Executive committee members travel the world

in high style, staying in five-star hotels and eating in the finest

restaurants.

(The photo on the front page of Blazer’s blog shows him in a

private jet with Nelson Mandela, and he mentions eating at New

York’s tony Eleven Madison Park after a meeting last year.)

”There are resources and there are folks who could benefit from

them who are not getting them,” said Mel Brennan, who worked at

CONCACAF, which represents North and Central America and the

Caribbean, from February 2001 to September 2003. ”The use of money

for political ends is the mode and modus of world football

governing bodies. There’s nobody in a position of power, influence,

authority and leverage to say, ‘Hey, all these assets, they don’t

belong to you,’ and can we come up with another set of metrics to

disperse them.”

But this latest scandal carried a different weight because the

allegations came from Blazer, one of FIFA’s own. Making them all

the more stunning was that the 66-year-old New Yorker had turned on

Warner, with whom he was so closely allied after 20 years together

atop CONCACAF they were referred to as one person –

”ChuckandJack” or ”JackandChuck” – in soccer circles.

”I was surprised in the sense that, obviously, he and Jack

Warner had been so closely attached from 1990 until that

happened,” said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer

Federation from 1990-98.

On Saturday, CONCACAF suspended acting president Lisle Austin,

who tried to remove Blazer as secretary general in retaliation for

his whistleblowing.

Blazer has refused to discuss the allegations against Warner and

bin Hammam, which were compiled by former federal prosecutor John

P. Collins and are being investigated by former FBI Director Louis

Freeh’s firm. Blazer did tell The Associated Press this week that

”much more evidence” would emerge from Caribbean officials, who

were advised in Zurich to hand over the money to FIFA and assist in

the inquiry, or face their own investigation.

”Soccer is going to do just fine,” Rothenberg said. ”Does

(FIFA) have to look inside in terms of governance and how it

operates? The answer is yes. And I’m sure they will. I don’t want

to say it’s much ado about nothing, it’s serious. But as far as the

sport is concerned, the sport is going to be just fine.”

Soccer in the United States had little structure when Blazer

first got involved in the 1970s. He began coaching his son’s club

in New Rochelle, N.Y., and was soon sitting on the boards of local

and regional soccer organizations, positions that would become his

entree to the national scene. He was the USSF’s executive vice

president from 1984-86, then became chair of the national teams

committee. In 1988, he and Clive Toye, who had brought Pele to the

United States as the general manager of the New York Cosmos, formed

the American Soccer League.

Blazer may not have had a long history with soccer, but the NYU

business graduate and entrepreneur recognized its potential,

particularly in the United States.

”By the mid-80s, there was already an inexorable roll going

toward the sport. The NASL had really laid a foundation,” said Jim

Trecker, the longtime public relations executive who served as the

main spokesman for the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. ”I

think Chuck was the accelerant to it from a business standpoint

because he brought real marketing and business savvy to the

game.”

It was Blazer who urged Warner to run for president of CONCACAF

in 1990. When the Trinidadian won, he made Blazer the general

secretary, the equivalent of a CEO. Blazer immediately began

modernizing the low-budget confederation, starting with moving its

headquarters from Guatemala City to New York – CONCACAF is now

located in the posh Trump Tower. (Blazer lives in an apartment in

the high-priced building’s residential section, where neighbors

have included composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

Seeing how popular – and lucrative – Europe’s quadrennial

continental championship had become, Blazer created a similar

tournament for CONCACAF, called the Gold Cup. Played every two

years since 1991, not only does it give national teams more games –

critical for still-developing programs – it’s become a massive

moneymaker, with packed stadiums across the United States and

lucrative contracts for broadcast rights.

This year’s Gold Cup kicks off Sunday, with the champion earning

a spot in the Confederations Cup, the all-important World Cup

warm-up tournament.

In January 1997, Blazer beat out Rothenberg for North America’s

spot on FIFA’s 24-man executive committee, world soccer’s

highest-ranking body. He is one of the few executive committee

members who is not a current or former head of a national or

continental federation.

CONCACAF doesn’t have the same power within FIFA as the European

or South American federations. But Blazer’s personality and

accessibility make him one of FIFA’s more popular members. He is

frequently described as ”larger than life,” with the charisma to

match his big belly. (It was Blazer who said, ”I don’t see how you

can air-condition an entire country,” when Qatar said it would air

condition all of its stadiums.)

His business background and technological savvy gives him

significant influence, too – power that can only increase now that

he’s chairman of FIFA’s marketing and television advisory board, a

position that will give him a large say in who gets those massive

World Cup TV contracts.

When NBC submitted a $350 million bid for the English- and

Spanish-language U.S. rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in

2005, Blazer convinced the executive committee to turn it down. The

network only wanted the World Cups, and Blazer felt it was

imperative that FIFA’s American broadcast partner have more of a

stake in the game.

”He said, ‘You’d need to be committed to the sport in the

United States,”’ said ESPN’s Skipper. ”So we put together a bid

not only for the World Cup, but for the national team and for Major

League Soccer.”

FIFA eventually split the U.S. contract between ESPN and

Univision, with ESPN paying $100 million for the English-language

rights and Univision $325 million for the Spanish-language

rights.

Several of FIFA’s biggest sponsors have expressed concern about

the latest scandal, worried they will be wind up being dragged

along through the muck. Blatter has promised reform, but it is far

too soon to say whether the insulated group will actually give up

its cozy system or whether it is simply paying lip-service until

the spotlight shifts.

While Blazer is keeping quiet now, he expressed pride in FIFA

and its accomplishments in a November interview with The Associated

Press.

”No system is perfect. And as you get down to many different

levels, there are people who make mistakes, there are people who do

things wrong,” he said then. ”But by and large, if you look at

the accomplishments of FIFA, I’m very satisfied when I look back at

the 16 years that I’ve been there, and the 20 years here at the

confederation, that our accomplishments have been very

positive.

”Does it mean it’s not subject to criticism? Of course it is,

and you live with that. And in the end you try to learn from those

criticisms and do better.”

Follow Nancy Armour at http://twitter.com/nrarmour