The tragedy that was Chuck Blazer is now over. And tragedy it assuredly was, a good man destroyed by his own excesses, a man capable of wondrous warmth and humanity who ended up vilified as The Soccer Rat.
The greed that brought Chuck down cannot be ignored, but I will not allow it to dictate my memories of the man. I was fond of Chuck. I first met him in 1983 when he was involved in local youth soccer. Next to a bumpy soccer field somewhere in New York state, as I recall.
A big man, permanently over-weight it seemed, he had me thinking of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, with “its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice” -- lower the Dickensian extravagance a couple of notches, and you had Chuck Blazer. It was a pleasing image.
On that first occasion he commented, not favorably, on something I had written. His complaint, whatever it was, no longer matters, but the manner of it -- low-keyed, softly spoken, intelligent, good-humored -- was not to be forgotten. I suppose I can say that Chuck gave me the feeling that he cared. He did care, and this was not an act. This was the man himself.
Over the next 35 years I saw a lot of Chuck. A friendship developed, one that I valued. It was Chuck who simplified the mysteries of computers for me. He came to my apartment -- which involved climbing up four flights of stairs -- belabored me for using “shitty software,” and in an hour or so had put that right.
After that, there were plenty of occasions when I needed help with my shaky technology. Chuck always helped, always with that fetching smile. Of course, we talked a great deal about soccer -- the game itself, I mean. Chuck’s activities as an administrator were not of great interest to me. Though the results were.
His computer expertise was symbolic. His was a modernizing presence. Wherever he was in soccer, changes were made, things were brought up to date. He got things moving, made things happen.
In Concacaf he found his ideal territory, an organization of great potential, but one that was then operating out of a small office in -- well, where was it? -- Guatemala I think. Trying to contact Concacaf involved bad phone lines, shouted exchanges in Spanish with a lady (I was quite certain it was the office cleaner, but that was no doubt unkind), and instructions to call back mañana.
From that corner-store operation to the hugely modernized Concacaf operating from swank offices on New York’s 5th Avenue -- that was Chuck’s doing. A truly extraordinary achievement. As Chuck moved onward and upward as he started to mix with soccer’s luminaries, to become one of them, our friendship might have lapsed. It didn’t because Chuck kept in touch.
In 1996 he became a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee. Before I had made up my mind to call and offer congratulations, Chuck called me. A short call and -- given the background of his ascent to soccer’s highest level -- an almost trivial call. But Chuck was not about to move on and forget our friendship. And he never did.
I had for years been pestering FIFA to mandate that players in international games should wear numbers on the front of their shirts. My persistence had led only to an exasperated letter from Guido Tognoni, then FIFA’s press officer, telling me that FIFA had more important matters to worry about.
I asked Chuck for help. After all, as a member of FIFA’s inner circle ... Within days, came the news that frontal numbers would be used. Chuck called: “Boy, when I swing into action ...” We laughed, because Chuck admitted he hadn’t had time to even bring the matter up yet.
But the storm clouds were gathering. I was aware that his partner (in crime, as it turned out) the Concacaf president Jack Warner, was not held in the highest esteem on the ethical front. I managed to ignore all of that.
What I couldn’t ignore was the way that Chuck so quickly took to the high life. I found his famous on-line blog “Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends” embarrassing. I bitched about it, and Chuck simply stopped sending it to me.
During his earlier days working within American soccer, Chuck had “done a lot for the sport” -- the words are Bruce Arena’s, but they reflect my feeling too. I became convinced that Chuck was now doing a good job representing the region -- and in particular the USA -- at the FIFA level. We discussed that regularly. Often the talks would take place in his office where a huge bird cage housed his parrot Max -- “that damn bird” was another visitor’s view of Max -- whose constant squawking was strident enough to make conversation a problem. Chuck seemed not to notice.
Throughout those years of intermittent meetings, I found Chuck’s personality ... well, if not irresistible, certainly engaging. Always friendly and helpful. And stimulating. Never a dull moment, I suppose.
That was certainly true when the roof fell in. Yet the tragedy started well -- at least it appeared to. During a long telephone conversation, Chuck had explained to me that he’d had to report Warner to FIFA, as Warner was handing out money to Concacaf federations. Vote buying, really.
So Chuck was the good guy, the whistle blower. Not for long. It seems that no one likes a whistle blower. So much happened so quickly. Chuck was soon under suspicion of sharp practices that were bringing him millions. Then came the news that Chuck had not been paying his taxes for years.
That I find difficult to explain. That some one as financially canny as Chuck would almost invite the IRS to investigate him ... that did not -- still does not -- fit. But maybe it does, it fits the shape of Greek Tragedy.
A different Chuck was emerging, one I didn’t know at all, but one that I could have been quicker to recognize. Chuck had told me, years back, that he liked to gamble. He visited Las Vegas, won -- and lost -- large sums, he claimed.
He played the stock exchange too, the capitalist gambling game. Another area of life -- his life -- that I did not understand. But I surely knew enough to know that I shouldn’t trust a gambler. My father had once made a large loan to a friend -- a lovely guy, we all liked him -- who had been embezzling his company’s money. A gambler. Just in time, my father canceled the loan. As I recall, the gambler -- a caring guy who had taken me, when I was about 12, to Stoke to see Stanley Matthews play in a wartime game -- went to jail.
A part of me -- it must have been the puritanical part -- wanted to be censorious. Chuck had enriched himself with other people’s money. But whose money? As far as I could see, this was corporate, marketing-type money. And I couldn’t get too pious about that.
Anyway, by then, I was full of a real sympathy for Chuck. He was a sick man, battling cancer. He was living in a hospital bed. A succession of them. I went to visit him in two different Manhattan hospitals, then to two different hospitals up in the Bronx.
The last time I saw him was at his hospital in the Bronx. Still formidably big, he could get up, walk a little. He was dissatisfied -- with that gentle smile, of course. He didn’t approve of the treatment he was getting. He announced that he was going home, and the hell with what the doctors said.
He did not go home. The FBI was now involved. He went instead to a “secret” hospital somewhere in New Jersey. Now you needed clearance and passwords to visit him. I never made it to New Jersey.
But through all the time I was visiting him -- a year and a half maybe -- his spirit never wavered. Through repeated medical setbacks, through discomfort and pain, he remained optimistic, always talking of his plans for the future. The visits to Chuck’s bedside were never depressing experiences.
A brave man, a big man, with big appetites -- especially greed, and that was what did him in. Yes, I can find excuses for Chuck -- particularly as he was operating at a moment in U.S. history when greed was being glorified -- “Greed is good” as the slippery Ivan Boesky had said.
But there is no excuse really, is there? Does there need to be? Chuck’s tragedy was the classic Greek tragedy, the fall of an important and worthy man, brought to ruin by his own weakness and his inability to handle outside influences.
Of course there will be scoffing at that word “worthy.” But not from me. Nothing Chuck did or said or even hinted during our relationship ever suggested dishonesty. Maybe -- quite likely -- I was fooled by the easy charm of the born gambler.
So be it. I’ll remember Chuck as a worthy friend, a warm human being. That was the Chuck I knew. The other Chuck, the crook if you like, I never encountered. That was the one who got trapped -- willingly trapped himself, most would say -- in the lavish-spending celebrity world. He brought about his own downfall, but he also betrayed good people in the process.
So there were two Chucks. Just as there are -- at least -- two Paul Gardners. One of which -- the better one, I feel -- was very fond of Chuck and is not about to forget that.
I think of the searing words that another ruined man, another big, talented man with a huge expansive personality -- Oscar Wilde -- wrote from his jail cell: