Ken Bensinger on the secret informants who made the USA's case in soccer's biggest scandal, the soccer guys who worked it, and the Christopher Steele twist

It's hard to imagine how someone who was not a soccer fan could have written the story of how the FBI and IRS busted the biggest criminal enterprise in the history of international sports.

Nor is it easy to see how the case could have been broken if an agent had not followed the sport and was not disgusted that hundreds of millions of dollars were being siphoned off for personal gain.

Investigative journalist Ken Bensinger is author of Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports Scandal, the story of how investigators at the FBI and IRS blew open the case of bribe-taking at Concacaf and Conmebol for decades to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bensinger, who sold the film option for the book to Pearl Street Films, the production company owned by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, did not grow playing or following soccer. He played baseball, basketball and football as a kid and lacrosse in college. But he became fascinated with soccer like so many others have by living and working abroad. Marrying an Argentine meant he was hooked.

"I began to get interested in the beautiful game," Bensinger said, "and over the last 10-15 years, I've really focused on soccer, and it has become my favorite sport."

Bensinger is an award-winning investigative reporter, having worked for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times and now BuzzFeed. He doesn't write about soccer but was drawn to the business side of the sport.

"Soccer has not been well covered on the business side," he said, "so there seemed to be an opportunity for me to say something new and interesting."

The book would have also not been possible if Bensinger had not spoken Spanish.

"We speak it everyday at home," he said. "It opened up some doors, got people to talk whom I might otherwise have not gotten. It gave me understanding of the game and what it represents to people of other cultures. It would not have been possible or very difficult for me without the language."

Photo courtesy of BuzzFeed

More fundamental than the fact that no one had looked into writing about the massive corruption that was taking place in Concacaf and Conmebol, no investigative bodies seemed to want to deal with the problem.

"As surprising as the famous arrests of 2015 were, I think those following the sport weren't surprised there was corruption," said Bensinger. "Everyone was surprised it finally happened. It was an open secret in international sports that there was a problem with FIFA and the events it organized. There was just no faith something could happen. The Swiss prosecutors spent years looking into the ISL bankruptcy and whether there was anything criminal but they didn't charge anyone. The British made it very clear that they weren't going to do anything to hurt their chances of getting a World Cup and their stature in the sport.

"No country was willing to take it on because of the intense political power of the sport, which only added to the impunity. It was the USA that stepped in to do that. There was an irony to that the USA, which doesn't love the sport as much as other countries do, would be the one to finally do something. But it almost makes sense. It took a country that had that kind of separation between the political realm and sports realm to provide the breathing room for such an investigation to take place. It's hard to imagine it beginning in a Germany or a Brazil, for that matter."

Soccer executives and sports firms were making millions of dollars off soccer as they were helping the sport take off in the United States. Another irony is that one of those new soccer fans was Steve Berryman, an IRS special agent based in Southern California. He'd get up early on Saturday mornings and watch his favorite team, Liverpool, on television, and he went to Germany with a couple of buddies to support the USA at the 2006 World Cup. While another agent who had not been hit by the soccer bug might not have noticed, Berryman's interest was certainly piqued in August 2011 when a Google notification popped up on his phone about a Reuters report of an FBI investigation into secret payments made over 15 years to an American soccer boss, Chuck Blazer.

Berryman called the FBI, and he worked on the investigation that led to charges filed by the U.S. Justice Department in 2015 against more than 40 soccer officials and sports marketing executives for racketeering and bribery involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Here is what Bensinger says about the three key informants in the case:

Chuck Blazer, the willing cooperator. Blazer, the larger-than-life American soccer executive who helped build the Concacaf empire and became a powerful figure at FIFA as it grew into a commercial giant, became the symbol of the excesses in international soccer, at least to Americans. Blazer, who died in July 2017 at the age of 72 after a long bout with cancer, became a whistle-blower and central to the Federal investigation. After being caught for tax evasion, he became a cooperator, most famously using a wired fob on his key-chain as he talked with soccer executives from around the world at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Bensinger: "To be clear, he wasn't running to the feds to offer his cooperation for free. He didn't say anything about any of this stuff until he was caught, but once he was up against it and had no choice and he had to cooperate, they found him to be a fairly willing cooperator and did a lot of positive things for the investigation. That's not the case with cooperators in general and in this case. A couple of people attributed it to me as if he really felt it was time to clean things up and this was his opportunity."

Jose Hawilla, the brazen bribe-payer. Brazilian Jose Hawilla founded Traffic, the U.S.- and Brazilian-based firm that bought the media and commercial rights to international competitions organized by Concacaf and Conmebol. He recognized the key to Traffic's success was to renew contracts for below-market prices by paying kickbacks to the executives whose soccer organizations held the rights. In 2013, Federal authorities arrested him on charges of lying to FBI agents. Hawilla was so brazen that he continued his scheming on the side, helping set up the Copa Centenario in the United States that almost collapsed when the Federal indictments were handed down in 2015. Hawilla, who died in May at the age of 74 in Sao Paulo, was forced to agree to forfeit more than $152 million.

Bensinger: "He was an incredibly important part of the investigation. Blazer was someone who had taken bribes and admitted to taking bribes but he was not a bribe payer. The kind of investigation which they were doing became an organized crime-style investigation formed around RICO, which is a racketeering law. It was really key to get someone who paid the bribes and could tell them where all the bodies lay. One can imagine if you're a bribe taker, you might not know who else is taking bribes. People don't talk about that in polite company: 'Oh, by the way, I took the bribe.' If you're the ones paying the bribes, of course, you know where everything is. And these guys being who they are, they usually keep good records. So once the feds learned about Hawilla, who wasn't someone on their radar at the beginning, they wheeled him in using Blazer. It took a lot of work and a lot of time but they got him.

"He was not the good kind of cooperator. There was a moment of crisis for the investigators about 10 months after they got him as a cooperator. They found out he had been lying to them for nine months and that he not only continued to lie but he was involved in corrupt acts and coordinated bribes during this whole period. It was quite a shock and came when the case was still running under water and no one was supposed to know."

Enrique Sanz, working both sides. Colombian-American Enrique Sanz, who worked for Traffic, succeeded Blazer as general secretary of Concacaf after Jeffrey Webb succeeded Jack Warner as president. Backed by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Webb cast himself as a reformer, cleaning up Concacaf and its business, but he was just as corrupt as the notorious Warner. Sanz's appointment, it turned out, was an inside job, facilitating the corrupt activities of Hawilla and Webb. Like Hawilla, Sanz was caught by Federal authorities and became a cooperator, never indicted but referenced as "co-conspirator No. 4" in the Justice Department's initial indictment.

In the the most dramatic scene in Bensinger's book, Sanz collapsed and was unresponsive, as if in a coma, in May 2015, and his wife took him to the hospital, where doctors tried to figure out what experimental medicines he had been taking. Hoping to unlock Sanz's cell phone to find clues about what he had been taking, his wife gave his Concacaf-issued phone to Webb. Fearing someone was cooperating with the FBI, Webb had hired private investigator. He gave the phone to the detective, who had the proof -- he discovered on Sanz's phone texts back and forth between Sanz and his handler at the FBI. (Weeks later, Webb was arrested during the raid at the Baur au Lac hotel.)

Bensinger: "That was a reporting challenge, to understand better the Enrique Sanz story. A lot of people who crossed paths with him through the years had walked away from all the indictments very confused. They couldn't understand where he fit in all this. There was nothing said about him. There were veiled references throughout the indictments but never any public statement about him.

"It turns out his story is complicated. Starting in early 2014, he was another secret cooperator working with the investigation. They had him dead to rights, and he agreed to cooperate. He was willing to make phone calls, get documents, have conversations, pass along information, wear a wire, whatever the case may be. Not only did he work on the bribe-paying side for Traffic but he also then switched to become the general secretary of Concacaf and therefore ended up on the other side, the bribe-receiving side. He ended up being one of the only figures who worked on both sides of deal. Some involved in the investigation described him as being among the biggest crooks in the whole case, is how they put it.

"But he got incredibly ill in the middle of the time he was cooperating. He got leukemia and stopped working day to day for the confederation and left the scene. There became a question for the prosecution in the case about whether to indict a very sick man or not. Ultimately, they decided not to indict him. Which isn't to say they let him off the hook, but they assured him, for the moment, given his health, they weren't ready to indict him. It says something about the prosecutors in the case. As hard as the they were -- and they could be tough -- they showed some mercy with people when it comes to matters of health."

(They let Hawilla, who suffered from respiratory problems, return to Brazil after the Brooklyn trial in 2017, knowing he'd never return.)

The Christopher Steele twist to the book. As Bensinger was writing the book, another story fell into his lap, which drew global attention, far greater than any soccer story could ever receive. In January 2017, Bensinger had the lead byline in the BuzzFeed story releasing the Steele dossier, a private intelligence report containing allegations of misconduct and conspiracy between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russia. It led to Bensinger being sued twice and BuzzFeed being sued three times (though the suit by Michael Cohen, Trump's former attorney, was later dropped).

The dossier is named after its author, Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russia desk for MI6, Britain's version of the CIA. As Bensinger notes, Steele's work is also at the origin of the soccer case brought by U.S. authorities. In 2010, Steele was hired by a firm organized to manage England's World Cup 2018 bid, and it wanted him to investigate Russia's ultimately successful bid to host the 2018 tournament. He took what he knew about Russia and FIFA to agents he knew at the FBI's Eurasian desk in downtown New York looking into Russian and Ukrainian organized crime. Most experienced agents were tied up with other work, but one agent who happened to be free was Jared Randall, who had played college soccer at Manhattan College. Another soccer person was on the case.

Ken Bensinger's top six soccer books:

1. Sneaker Wars (Barbara Smit). For anyone who wants to understand the commercial roots of modern-day FIFA and its unholy alliances with Adidas and Coca-Cola, this meticulously researched book is a must. And that's only part of the fun! The history of Adidas and the brilliant, if cynical, Horst Dassler, is eye-opening.

2. Soccer in Sun and Shadow (Eduardo Galeano). It's on almost every list, so perhaps cliché, but the Uruguayan's gorgeous journey through the history of the beautiful game, and particularly the World Cup, is moving and also tremendously interesting. Galeano has the brain of a journalist and the heart of a poet and the sport will never be the same after this. Worth a read every four years.

3. FIFA Mafia (Thomas Kistner). There's a growing library of soccer scandal books, but this volume (which I have only found in German and Spanish, unfortunately) is perhaps the most thorough and sweeping of them all, going into great detail about many cases of corruption that escaped attention of the English press.

4. The Ugly Game (Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert). My colleague Heidi and her former reporting partner came across a once-in-a-lifetime goldmine when they got their hands on the complete email archive of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the former FIFA executive committee member from Qatar. An incredible treasure trove, it allowed the reporters to root out the story of where all the money really went.

5. O Lado Sujo do Futebol (Amaury Riberiro Jr, Leando Cipoloni, Luiz Carlos Azenha, and Tony Chastinet). Another non-English title (this one is available in Portuguese and Spanish), it opens a window into the depths of Brazilian soccer corruption and the decades-worth of antics of João Havelange and his ne'er-do-well son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira. You'll never think of "Jogo Bonito" in the same way. 

6. Soccernomics (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski). Inspired by Moneyball, this journalist/economist duo provide an excellent and often hilariously entertaining dispassionate analysis of what really makes the sport tick. Particularly strong for its look at the English Premier League and the byzantine international transfer market, as well as its probing question of why so few managers are people of color.

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