The definitive, shocking account of the FIFA scandal—the biggest international corruption case of recent years, spearheaded by US investigators, involving dozens of countries, and implicating nearly every aspect of the world’s most popular sport, soccer, including its biggest event, the World Cup.
The FIFA case began small, boosted by an IRS agent’s review of an American soccer official’s tax returns. But that humble investigation eventually led to a huge worldwide corruption scandal that crossed continents and reached the highest levels of the soccer’s world governing body in Switzerland.
In Red Card, Ken Bensinger explores the case, and the personalities behind it, in vivid detail. There’s Chuck Blazer, a high-living soccer dad who ascended to the highest ranks of the sport while creaming millions from its coffers; Jack Warner, a Trinidadian soccer official whose lust for power was matched only by his boundless greed; and the sport’s most powerful man, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who held on to his position at any cost even as soccer rotted from the inside out.
Remarkably, this corruption existed for decades before American law enforcement officials began to secretly dig, finally revealing that nearly every aspect of the planet’s favorite sport was corrupted by bribes, kickbacks, fraud, and money laundering. Not even the World Cup, the most-watched sporting event in history, was safe from the thick web of corruption, as powerful FIFA officials extracted their bribes at every turn. Arriving just in time for the 2018 World Cup,Red Card goes beyond the headlines to bring the real story to light, accompanying the determined American prosecutors and special agents who uncovered what proved to be not only the biggest scandal in sports history, but one of the biggest international corruption cases ever. And it is far from over.
Red Card ONE BERRYMAN SHORTLY AFTER TEN ON THE morning of August 16, 2011, Steve Berryman, a forty-seven-year-old special agent for the Internal Revenue Service, was in his cubicle on the third floor of a huge federal office building known as the Ziggurat in Laguna Niguel, California, when his mobile phone vibrated. There was a new Google Alert email in his inbox.
Berryman, six feet tall and slender, with brown eyes so dark they looked almost black, thick eyebrows, pale skin, and a neatly trimmed white mustache that matched his slicked-back hair, had set up a number of such alerts. His choice of keywords betrayed a sensibility that, after twenty-five years at the IRS, had become highly refined when it came to financial crimes. Berryman had alerts for “money laundering”; “corruption”; “Bank Secrecy Act”; and “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” among many others. The messages arrived in batches throughout the day, delivering dozens of news articles from around the world about various cases of financial misbehavior that Berryman would quickly scan before returning to whatever case he happened to be working.
But this particular notification stopped him in his tracks. The alert was under the search term “bribery,” and contained a link to an article by the Reuters news service. The headline was “FBI Examines U.S. Soccer Boss’s Financial Records.”
The story described a set of documents, allegedly being scrutinized by the FBI, that outlined more than $500,000 in suspicious payments received over a fifteen-year period by an American soccer official named Chuck Blazer.
Blazer was a high-ranking official of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer. Berryman thought he might have heard his name somewhere, but he didn’t recognize the photo of a scowling, tousle-haired man with bushy eyebrows and an unruly gray beard. An intoxicating surge of excitement swept over him as he reread the article several times, taking special note of the fact that Blazer had several offshore bank accounts, including one in the Cayman Islands.
He forwarded the article to his supervisor, Aimee Schabilion, then dashed into her office to make sure she’d read it.
“This could be huge,” he said.
Berryman loved soccer ever since he was a kid.
He grew up in England, because his father was in the Air Force, and spent most of his first eleven years living outside military bases there, playing soccer most afternoons. When his family moved back to the States, settling in Southern California’s hot, dusty Inland Empire, he couldn’t find anyone to play with, so he transferred his soccer skills to the gridiron, becoming a star placekicker.
His strong left foot earned him an athletic scholarship to Eastern Illinois University. Berryman could launch the ball sixty-five yards through the uprights about three-quarters of the time, but was not good enough to cut it in the professional ranks. Berryman loathed the Midwest’s bitter winters. As soon as he realized that his future wasn’t going to be in the NFL, he abandoned his scholarship, transferred to Cal State San Bernardino, completed his degree in accounting, and signed up to become an IRS agent.
His first case was against the owner of a luxury hair salon who hadn’t reported all of his income. Berryman spent his early years at the IRS investigating petty tax evaders and crooked accountants. But he was drawn to bigger, more complicated types of financial crime. He soon moved into narcotics, teaming up with other agencies on long, involved international investigations.
Berryman’s big revelation, working those cases, was that drugs, guns, and violence were only half the story. A full accounting of the crimes could only be told once all the money had been traced. While DEA agents dreamed up dramatic stings aimed at turning up troves of drugs, Berryman spent his time meticulously chasing the dealers’ money around the world, adding additional charges—and, often, defendants—to the indictments. People were fallible, he realized. They played games, forgot facts, succumbed to temptation, exaggerated, and contradicted themselves. Documents never lied.
After having kids, Berryman and his wife bought a house close to the ocean. He transferred to the Laguna Niguel office of the IRS, deep in Orange County, where he began working on public corruption cases, including a massive investigation that landed the county’s well-known sheriff, Mike Carona, in prison. He traveled to other field offices, teaching agents about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, spearheaded a public and foreign corrupt officials project in the IRS’s main Los Angeles field office, and volunteered as a witness for federal prosecutors who needed experts on money laundering on the stand.
“I’m an accountant with a gun,” Berryman liked to say. “What could be more fun?”
Berryman was not motivated, as some cops are, by a sense of moral indignity. Indeed, he often found himself admiring the men and women he pursued, wondering if, in other circumstances, they could have been friends. What made him tick, instead, was the thrill of the hunt.
He wasn’t a lawyer, but he gained a reputation as a prosecutor’s agent whose relentless focus on the mechanics of cases was matched only by his passionate attention to detail. Some higher-ups in the agency privately considered Berryman one of the best IRS agents in the entire country: ambitious and willing to travel and work as many hours as it took to make a case stick.
When he wasn’t working, however, he was more likely than not thinking about soccer, which he called football, the word most of the planet uses for the game.
Berryman would wake up early on weekends, sometimes before five a.m., to watch his favorite team, Liverpool, play English Premier League matches on cable. In 2006, he and two friends traveled to the World Cup in Germany and attended all three games played by the U.S. national team, as well as a match between Brazil and Ghana. He played in an adult soccer league, coached his kids’ teams, and frequently attended MLS matches. And like a lot of soccer fans, he’d become increasingly dismayed by constant rumors of corruption and mismanagement at the sport’s highest levels.
For years, Berryman had been hearing about greedy soccer officials stealing from the game, depriving teams, players, and especially fans of money that could improve and better develop the sport. But the problem had always seemed so distant. The reports were certainly troubling to someone who cared about soccer, but these things were happening in faraway places like Switzerland, Italy, or Africa, and at any rate certainly not in America, where soccer was still a second-rate sport, too minor for big-time corruption. Soccer might be dirty, but Berryman had never thought of the sport’s problems as potentially criminal.
The Reuters article changed that. Blazer was an American, living in New York. That meant potential jurisdiction, the chance to apply one of Berryman’s great passions, investigating financial crimes, to his other: the world’s most popular sport.
If this homegrown soccer official had been involved in anything criminal, then Berryman believed he’d been born to figure out what that might be.
Taxes are so fundamental to the experience of being an American that they are seen as almost sacred: dull, number-laden documents that act as Rosetta stones to the secret financial lives of every person. The United States is one of only two countries in the world—the other being tiny, war-torn Eritrea—that requires citizens to file even when living abroad, and every year the Internal Revenue Service processes more than 150 million individual income tax returns.
There is in fact a special section of federal law dedicated to enshrining the private status of filings, prohibiting almost everyone, under pain of punishment, from viewing or disclosing income tax returns. That restriction includes law enforcement, up to and including the FBI itself, whose agents must jump through a series of legal hoops before they can so much as glance at a tax return.
There is one group entrusted by the government to review tax returns, a caste whose unique powers have perversely earned them society’s fear and disgust: employees of the IRS. As an IRS agent, Steve Berryman had the unique power to look at anyone’s taxes, provided he had good cause to believe a crime might have been committed. Thanks to the Reuters piece, he could move forward.
Standing in his supervisor’s office on that August Tuesday, he asked permission to pull Chuck Blazer’s tax returns. Within minutes, he got his first glimpse of that crucial information.
Berryman was expecting some obvious omissions or telltale signs of hidden income. The result was far better than hoped. “No record found.”
His eyes went wide. The system was telling him that Chuck Blazer hadn’t filed his taxes in at least seventeen years.
It can be a misdemeanor to fail to file. But if Blazer had received any income anywhere, and intentionally hid it, that could elevate the omission to a felony. And if he had foreign bank accounts that he didn’t report to the government, that was a felony as well.
Chuck Blazer, the only American on the Executive Committee of FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the supreme body overseeing all of global soccer, looked awfully like a tax criminal.
Heart pounding, Berryman dashed back into Schabilion’s office. He explained who Blazer was, what FIFA did, and how this slam-dunk tax case he’d unearthed could be a foot in the door to something far bigger.
“Can I get involved?” he pleaded.
Berryman wasn’t one to buck authority. But for the most part, his superiors trusted his ability to select cases that were worth his time, and they stayed out of the way. Schabilion had no problem with him looking into this, but what about the FBI? The article suggested it was already an open case. If he wanted to pursue it, he’d need to clear it with the Bureau first.
Berryman had no way of checking the FBI’s computer systems to see if there was indeed an open case involving Blazer. So he called an FBI agent he’d worked with in Santa Ana and asked her to check for him.
The agent called back soon thereafter.
“Yes,” she said. “There’s an agent on it in New York.”
There are dozens of federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, each with their own responsibilities and powers, down to the gun-toting agents of the National Zoological Park Police and the inspector general of the Small Business Administration.
But the largest, best funded, and most powerful of all is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It has tens of thousands of agents, vast resources, and offices around the world. It is the star of America’s legal show, basking in the attention lavished by journalists, Hollywood, and, particularly, members of Congress with budget authority. Although it’s common for multiple law enforcement authorities to team up on cases, investigators from other agencies quickly learn to tiptoe when dealing with the FBI. It had an uncanny knack for always coming out on top.
Berryman asked his friend at the Bureau if she’d reach out to the agent in New York to see if he would consider discussing the case. You bet, she said. She’d get back to him when she heard something.
As he anxiously waited, Berryman learned everything he could about Blazer, FIFA, and international soccer. He stayed up late researching Jack Warner, a soccer official from Trinidad and Tobago who had cut $512,750 in checks to Blazer that were now under scrutiny, according to the Reuters article, and the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, which the two men had run together for more than two decades. He also read about a fabulously wealthy Qatari named Mohamed bin Hammam, who had helped the tiny Middle Eastern nation win the right to host the World Cup in 2022.
He soon began to imagine a possible case, the ways it could be investigated and prosecuted, and the reach it could have. With each passing day, Berryman’s enthusiasm grew until he felt more excited about this lead than any in his career. He desperately wanted in.
He had no idea where the FBI’s investigation had gone, but was certain its agents couldn’t look at Blazer’s tax returns without a court order. Berryman half-hoped that they were stuck. They needed an IRS agent on the case. That was the way to muscle his way in to the case, he thought, and Blazer could be just the beginning.
After nearly a week, the FBI agent in Santa Ana called again.
“The case agent’s name is Jared Randall,” she said, passing along his contact information. “He’s open to it.”
Berryman had been prescient.
Investigating Chuck Blazer’s tax problem was like pulling someone over for a bum taillight only to discover a trunk stuffed with dead bodies.
Over the next four years, Berryman would work in secret with the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn to build one of the largest and most ambitious investigations of international corruption and money laundering in American history.
After almost a year, the FBI investigation was indeed stuck, mired in the challenges of taking on an institution as vast, complex, and powerful as FIFA. But thanks in great part to Berryman, the tiny case was about to explode, with the U.S. government confronting the fundamental business underpinning the world’s most popular game. Dozens of people from more than fifteen different countries would eventually be charged with violating the United States’ stiff racketeering, money laundering, fraud, and tax laws, exposed for their part in what prosecutors described as a decades-long, highly orchestrated criminal conspiracy calculated to twist the beloved sport to their selfish designs.
Many of those caught up in the investigation would throw themselves at the mercy of the Department of Justice, forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars and quietly agreeing to cooperate. This allowed prosecutors to secretly cast the net ever wider as the sport’s officials betrayed their friends and colleagues. The case finally became public with the dramatic arrest of seven soccer officials in an early morning raid in Switzerland in May 2015, shaking the foundations of the sport. Soon, nearly every significant official at FIFA was ousted, including its genial yet ruthless president, the Swiss Sepp Blatter. Prosecutors in countries around the world would be inspired to open their own separate criminal investigations, helping further reveal the ugly inner workings of the sport known as the beautiful game.
After decades of unchecked impunity in the face of scandals, the global soccer cartel was finally brought to its knees by one of the few countries in the entire world that didn’t seem to care much about the sport at all. That irony wasn’t lost on the game’s hundreds of millions of fans around the globe, who found themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for the United States to actually stick its nose in other countries’ business: Uncle Sam, implausibly, had become soccer’s biggest superstar.
When the clandestine case finally became public, critics accused the prosecution, led by a cerebral Harvard Law graduate named Evan Norris, of arrogance and overreach, arguing that America shouldn’t try to police the entire planet or impose its laws on foreign countries. Others claimed the case represented its own kind of conspiracy, a plot by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation to bring down a foreign sport it detested and feared. Perhaps the most popular theory was that the case was high-level retribution for passing over the U.S.’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022.
Prosecutors anticipated such concerns and went to great lengths to charge only crimes that allegedly took place—at least in part—on American soil or with the use of the American financial system. Awake to the emotional and political power of soccer in the rest of the world, the feds went to considerable lengths to protect the sensitivities of other nations and drive home the point that they weren’t indicting the sport, only the men who had sullied its reputation. Indeed, they took pains to argue that soccer was itself the victim of the crimes being charged and had a right to eventually recover the money that had been stolen from it.
As for the notion that some insidious, vindictive, or downright xenophobic agenda was driving the case, the truth is the FIFA probe commenced months before the voting members of FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee chose Qatar over the U.S. to host the sport’s most important tournament.
America’s case against soccer corruption didn’t start at the top, some dictum from on high. It was the product of careful, patient police work by dedicated investigators; something that began small and grew into a far vaster endeavor than anyone involved could have imagined. And it is still very much ongoing.
The saga of corruption within FIFA and worldwide soccer as a whole is immeasurably complicated—far too sprawling to capture or make sense of in any comprehensive fashion in these pages. It encompasses decades of deceit, bribery, self-dealing, and impunity, all taking place as soccer expanded geometrically to become the planet’s great sporting juggernaut, a multibillion-dollar pastime driven by the ardent passions of its devoted fans.
This book traces the broadest outlines of a single criminal case notable for its numbing complexity and scope, one that pushed the boundaries of what anyone—especially disillusioned fans of the world’s game—ever thought possible. It is also the tale of some of the people, brilliant and corruptible, dedicated and careless, humble and arrogant, loyal and treacherous, who made this the world’s greatest sports scandal.
Ken Bensinger has been a journalist for more than twenty years. He has worked at TheWall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and, since 2014, for BuzzFeed News, as a member of its investigations team, and has written about sports, labor, art, automobiles, and politics, among other topics. He has been a winner of the ASME National Magazine award and the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Finance & Business Reporting, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. He grew up in Seattle, graduated from Duke University, and lives with his wife, two children, and dog, in Los Angeles. Red Card is his first book.
"A gripping white-collar crime thriller that, in its scope and human drama, ranks with some of the best investigative business books of the past 30 years."
– David Hirshey, The Wall Street Journal
“An engrossing and jaw-dropping tale of international intrigue. . . . The FIFA scandal involved old-fashioned and highly intuitive vote buying, bribery, payoffs and kickbacks on a breathtaking scale. Such corruption makes for a particularly gripping narrative. . . . A riveting book.”
– Jonathan A. Knee, The New York Times
“Red Card is timely and fascinating, a galloping world tour of the filth and corruption that stretches from Trump Tower to the heart of Russia. With gripping storytelling, Ken Bensinger reveals how the FIFA empire was constructed, what caused it to crash down, and why nothing will ever be the same. Readers won't be able to put this book down.”
– Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
“Red Card is a globe-trotting, stylish non-fiction crime thriller…. Ken Bensinger exposes the massive FIFA case as a narrative with enough twists, betrayals, and action for a Hollywood noir.”
– Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk
"If you love soccer, then you probably hate FIFA. I took immense pleasure in reading this cracking tale of how an unlikely crew of Yanks busted the cabal of crooks that ran the global game for so long. Ken Bensinger has beautifully reported a great procedural that gets to the heart of so much that is wrong with sport—and the world."
– Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World and World Without Mind
"Red Card is the meeting of American investigative reporting and real-life cop show."
– Simon Kuper, The Financial Times
“With the flair of a novelist, Bensinger meticulously chronicles the magnitude of corruption that permeates the world’s most popular sport.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] fine, deeply researched, painstakingly assembled book. . . . A deeply forensic investigation of the depth of corruption within FIFA and its regional bodies that also shows how much work goes into high-level criminal investigations.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Writing with deep inside knowledge of the key players and events in the U.S.-led investigation, veteran journalist Bensinger manages to give a mind-bogglingly complex cast of characters and time lines the pace and plot of a crackling white-collar-crime thriller. . . . It may be a beautiful game on the field, but in the backrooms and boardrooms, it’s downright disgusting. Anyone seeking crystal-clear understanding of the rot in soccer can start with this remarkable book.”
– Booklist (starred review)
“With revelatory reporting and glittering prose, Ken Bensinger delivers the definitive account of how American investigators pulled the string on a tax case that ended up unraveling the ‘World Cup of fraud' leading to the executive suites at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. A remarkable achievement.”
– Don Van Natta Jr., three-time Pulitzer Prize winning author of Wonder Girl and Her Way
“Ken Bensinger does what few journalists can, taking a story that you think you know, and detailing how much deeper it actually goes. This is a book about the unending greed and deceit that took place inside FIFA. It’s a book that is woven together with the mastery of a movie script that will leave you angry, shocked, and unable to look away.”
– Nick Bilton, author of American Kingpin and Hatching Twitter
“Red Card is the definitive account of the biggest sports scandal in history, a deeply sourced and brightly written book from one of America’s finest investigative journalists. It is also a true crime gem, gripping and entertaining.”
– George Dohrmann, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Play Their Hearts Out and Superfans
“A fascinating tale of fraud, kickbacks, bribes, and money laundering—a white-collar crime extravaganza.”
– Paul M. Barrett, author of Glock and Law of the Jungle
“Red Card is both a searing indictment of corruption in the beautiful game and a kinetic international police thriller. . . . Bensinger unsparingly shows how soccer's top echelon brazenly became a cash-smuggling mafia beholden to the worst regimes on earth.”
– Tim Elfrink, co-author Blood Sport
"Take one of the biggest scandals in sports history—the FIFA soccer case—and put it in the hands of a skilled reporter and writer, and you have a riveting book like Red Card. Author Ken Bensinger delivers a suspenseful, highly entertaining story told with novelistic detail, deep insight and the pace of a thriller. Anyone wanting to know how international soccer fell into a colossal swamp of corruption will find all the answers here."
– Doug J. Swanson, author of Blood Aces
“[A] cinematic debut. . . . Bensinger’s ability to peel away the complex layers of these international schemes illustrates the absurdity owing to the extent and ubiquity of corruption as personal self-interests take over at every level. . . . Not solely for soccer fans but also those curious about organized crime—not least for the references to Eliot Ness and his team of Untouchables—and international intrigue.”
– Library Journal
“The authoritative account of the elaborate and stunning web of corruption which swallowed the highest ranks of the world's most popular sport. . . . A lively and disturbing journey full of the sort of ruthless characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, or on the other side of the villainous negotiating table in FIFA's underground bunker in Switzerland.”
– Gus Garcia-Roberts, co-author of Blood Sport
“Bensinger brings soccer’s case of the century—and the people involved, on both sides of the law—to vivid life. Thoroughly reported, carefully constructed, and wholly entertaining.”
– Rafi Kohan, author of The Arena
"Gripping. . . . Bensinger’s impeccably sourced account serves as a sharp reminder of the gargantuan levels of largesse and excess during FIFA's bad, bad days."
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