Soccer is not just what you see on the field.
It is a human activity that never sleeps, that absorbs the time and energy and the thoughts of millions of people all over the world. It is a world within a world with its own leaders, its own one hundred years of history, heroes, triumphs and tragedies. A world no better and no worse than the one we live in, full of admirable and shameful things, of sublime and sordid moments, of honorable and disreputable people…”
– Paul Gardner
“A fan? I don’t need you to be a fucking fan; I need you to be a businessman. You – you ARE a capitalist, aren’t you?”
– FIFA Executive Chuck Blazer, to the author, CONCACAF Gold Cup Downtown Marriott, Los Angeles 2002
PART ONE: FORTY YEARS OF WOMEN WITH COLD FEET
Given the steady doses of light that have been recently shone on FIFA’s secret world, more and more people are seriously concerning themselves with how the world’s most popular and prolific sport is being led. Some are reacting with a recalcitrant pessimism – “What else did you expect?” – while others are honestly, entirely shocked.
I see a new way forward. And that Way IS the answer to the questions “Who will lead?” and “Sport leadership toward what end?”
Nine days into my tenure as Head of Special Projects for CONCACAF (UEFA’s equivalent in the Caribbean, North and Central America) my boss – everyone’s boss – invited me to dinner.
Charles Gordon “Chuck” Blazer, the only multinational General Secretary of a representative body the size of CONCACAF who is also simultaneously the Treasurer, had always been possessed of the ability to make everyone he came across feel pretty good – about themselves and about him. And why not? A guy who actively reminds one of Santa Claus, Chuck’s gruff voice, authentic smile and charismatic charm can take hold of a room, and not let go until he’s connected with everyone in it. Sometimes regardless of what he’s actually saying. Hell, the first thing this rotund man told me about himself was that he wanted to write a book called “40 Years of Women with Cold Feet,” an expose of four decades of female efforts to snuggle cold toes under the enticingly warm folds of his prodigious gut.
And I still wanted to work with him in world football. More than anything.
Chuck was, and is, a convincer, a consensus-maker. A political set of skills, for a political job. I looked forward to learning some of those skills, and others I didn’t have, working in an environment that on the one hand was, no doubt, a dream job; on the other, it was one I probably didn’t deserve to enjoy at all.
Of course, I love world football; I’ve been a PSG and George Weah fan since the days of that COMMODORE sponsorship, grew up on “Soccer Made in Germany” on our local public television station, played the sport from age six onward, and am a founding member of FC United of Manchester, the MyFootballClub/Ebbsfleet United effort, Philadelphia Union, and even found myself one of the floating managers you could select to support your club-building efforts in Football Manager 2005. I haunt the forums of BigSoccer.com like a ghost of incenidaries past, with an avatar from Marvel’s TRUTH: RED WHITE AND BLACK, and a strapline of PLANITARCHIS’ BANE, serving as consistent prick in the side – or, to many, maybe just a consistent prick – to settled notions of society and culture, among those challenged notions football culture.
But these aren’t the bonifides that ought be required to execute football governance at the highest level, are they?
Indeed, if CONCACAF were to draw upon the footballing brain trust found within the 40 nations it governs, who, down the hall and across from me in the rarefied air of our Trump Tower New York City CONCACAF offices would still qualify to work there? Not many, if any; certainly not me.
The Entrance to CONCACAF‘s 17th Floor Trump Tower Secretariat (and various and sundry sublet small businesses of Chuck’s pleasure), circa 2003. Notice the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the distance. That thing is heavy.
I was there because I begged to be there, and I thought that Chuck saw some potential in me to become my preconceived notion of what a sport administrator and leader should be.
On this night, at dinner, I would find out differently.
I would find out where football’s money goes, and discover what was the beginning of my falling deeply OUT of love with, if not the game, world football’s leadership.
We would be going somewhere to fellowship and bond as a team, I was told, as well as watch the US Men’s National Team in World Cup Qualifying against Costa Rica.
What a way to start this dream gig, I thought to myself.
Our extended limo driver was singer Gloria Gaynor’s brother, Arthur, and, although initially suspicious of my (and probably anyone’s) claims to know her, we soon settled into a friendly discussion about my experiences with Gloria, her support of my father’s sister in her time of need, our fellowship at Thanksgiving.
Chuck interrupted with the slightly annoyed look and tone of a man used to being the center of attention who was finding the conversation drifting away from his intents, his control.
“Know where we’re headed?” Chuck asked me conspiratorially. “Scores.” He smiled. “Could be a long night,” he added lightly.
I knew the strip club – it’s as much a part of Manhattan culture as anything else – but had never been; what I became intimately aware of was Chuck’s focus on my reaction to this news…his interest in how I took it. Somehow I knew that how I responded to where we were headed meant much to this man.
I pulled out my phone. I dialed my wife.
“You need to check with your wife?” Chuck bellowed, bemused.
“I need to let her know it could be a long night, like to you said,” I said cautiously.
Chuck, seemingly somehow disappointed, dismissed my response, moving on to engage others in the limo, while I meditated on that moment, and what it might have meant.
“Welcome back Mr. Blazer,” the doorman announced, opening the door for Chuck’s unceremonious exit from the limo.
We had a whole section to ourselves – Chuck, myself, and several other CONCACAF personnel who would come to comprise what I called The Menagerie – collections of ostensible misfits who fit perfectly into Chuck’s intents for them as we all inhabited CONCACAF’s weirdspace.
Often, members of The Menagerie would sit at their workstations all day, playing Solitaire or falling asleep, until Chuck beamed down a message via AOL Instant Messenger to them from his apartment in Trump Tower’s residential section above us, activating them for some Blazer-centered purpose or another…people paid to go into action only when the GenSec needs his rugs moved or his parrot fed; this is where CONCACAF’s money goes; where the money that springs from the love of the game by hundreds of millions goes.
As time went on, I was determined NOT to be relegated to this “Team B”; for The Menagerie was seen by the very tiny minority of folks who actually did work at CONCACAF as the price to be paid by most to be involved in the good work of world football governance under a man like Chuck. That group – the despair I saw among many in that group – was never going to be me.
But this first night out, as we entered Scores, all I knew was that, well, this was different for a first night out with the boss.
As we hung out in our section, I spent most of my time talking with members of the team. Then came the filet mignon and the shoulder massages, both of which I have to admit were quite good. Oh yes, and the match was on a small television mounted in the corner…there was that too.
When the game, and the fun and games, were all over, Chuck pulled out something I had never seen before. An American Express Card, with CONCACAF and Blazer’s name on it. But it was a color I’d never seen before. It was black. This was the AMEX Centurion Card; card privileges are invitation-only, granted after extremely strict net worth, credit, and spending criteria are met.
“This your card, Chuck?” I asked, curious. Chuck ignored me, turned to a stripper/dancer he knew, and smiled, whispering something that made her smile back.
Whose money, ultimately, did that card represent? Well, if you live in the CONCACAF region…yours.
The card existed on the back of the aggregated wealth of CONCACAF; the everyday commitment to football made by the people of CONCACAF’s member nations (and the subsequent investment television broadcasters and advertisers make in football to reach those audiences, and the resultant sales they expect to garner from those audiences) made it possible.
And it was in Chuck’s name. And it just paid for food, strippers/dancers, and a set of massages. In time, I’d see that money spent on other things not football, other people not those most vulnerable and in need of football’s concern.
That’s what the General Secretary and Treasurer of CONCACAF, the FIFA Executive from North America, spent the region’s money on…regularly. But we’ll leave the stars of Mulholland Drive, Cloak and Dagger and The Young and the Restless out of this, for now.
I stayed among this group, resigning CONCACAF some 25 months later, but learning much more about the men running – and ruining – world football. Yet the remainder of my time there, from that night in February 2001 until I walked away in 2003 was informed, in many ways, by that night. Other people’s money, money meant for investment in football as culture, was being used for outings like that night. Seemingly all the time.
PART TWO: BLACK PRESIDENT
Former GM of NY Cosmos and the man who signed Pele – Clive Toye
When consultant Clive Toye (“Senior Consultant, you bugger,” I can imagine the man correcting me right now) rejected the idea of going himself to 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, FIFA VP and CONCACAF President Jack Warner instructed Chuck Blazer to offer me the opportunity.
“I told Jack it was a mistake,” Chuck told me before I left for Korea. “We should be gleaning far more value from this delegation slot than we are by giving it to you. But Jack wants you to go.”
Surely Jack, today, regrets that decision. But throughout my time at CONCACAF and with FIFA, Jack played a clear role in what I saw and experienced, and what I did not see.
Born Austin Warner but called “Jack” – a no-name nickname almost tailor-made to try to make one invisible – this CONCACAF President, CFU leader and FIFA VP had major concerns about the lack of black faces at the Secretariat in New York, and those concerns indirectly played a major role in me being hired.
“I love your martial arts background, and you can do what we’re asking you to do…but it also doesn’t hurt that you are African-American,” Chuck said, hiring me. “It gets Jack off of my back on that front.”
“To Chuck Blazer, my friend – with best wishes, J” Jack Warner signs his autobiography to Chuck, back when they were friends, before the Great Betrayal.
I didn’t care about Chuck’s bastardized attempt at Affirmative Action policy; I was in, and I was working for a black president. Frankly, my pride knew no bounds. I had led men and women for organizations and partnerships including Disney/ESPN, SEGA, Universal Studios, DreamWorks SKG…and never had I seen anyone of my own skin color in a position of determinate power in those organizations (Sidney Poitier sat on the Disney board at the time I worked there, and dialoguing with him in New York at one of their board meetings was a powerful experience, but he didn’t lead there).
Jack was the first. And the first disappointment.
Clive wrote all his words, Chuck took all his credit, his entourage took up all his time, and, at the FIFA Congress, I watched him lie to his delegates.
The sounds and smells of Namdaemun Market making their way into the Seoul Hilton, I watched this leader, our leader, tell this extensive, detailed, elaborate story about how he was approached in the middle of the night by (at that time candidate for FIFA President himself, and current alleged taker of bribes and IOC reprobate) Issa Hayatou and his entourage, seeking an audience.
And as Jack told his rapt delegation audience how he stood firm against “racial pressure” from that entourage to vote for the black compatriot, and stood tall for what was right, moral and just…voting for Sepp Blatter…his outrage was palpable, his indignation on display for all to see.
He received raucous applause, and, despite claims of independent thinking and voting from the NAs (not unlike we’re hearing from this regime’s allies, including men like USSF’s Sunil Gulati), CONCACAF voted as a bloc in the direction Warner pointed them. They did then as they always have, in protection of and paying respect to the silent quid pro quos that comprise the reasons you can’t see for why things happen at FIFA and its confederations.
That night, at one of the many meals the host nation provided free for FIFA delegates, I explored the day’s events with Chuck.
“Power speech by Jack, huh?” I launched. “Shame Hayatou felt that his best bet was to play the race card, that he felt his candidacy didn’t stand on its own merit.”
“Didn’t happen,” Chuck murmured between bites.
“Sorry?” I responded, confused.
Chuck chewed, swallowed, then spoke. “Never happened,” he gruffed at me. I still looked confused. “That story Jack told? He made it up.”
I must have continued to look like I didn’t get it, so Chuck made it simple for me. “To get the delegates to be outraged that Hayatou would try to manipulate Jack, and consequently their vote, he manipulated them, and their vote, with an elaborate lie.”
I stared at Chuck, apparently open-mouthed.
“Close your mouth,” Chuck said, disgustedly. “If you don’t get that this is political life and death, wake up now!” Chuck went back to eating.
I went to my room.
Under the door had been slipped a piece of election material from Sepp Blatter. This was 2002, and Blatter’s polished program described how 2002 was “Halftime” in his ambitions to shape FIFA. Just give me four more years, and I’ll be done, was his intimation; the idea, ultimately, being that 2006 would mark the end of Blatter’s “work.”
I tossed it in the trash, got my bags, and went back to New York.
I knew Blatter, like Warner, Blazer and all the others in the FIFA Twenty-Four and throughout the confederations, would never give up power, never orient FIFA’s resources democratically- never toward the interests hopes and concerns of most people, most of the time, while looking out for the most vulnerable.
They would only exercise perfect political power, for the benefit of themselves and those to whom they owed political favors.
That was it, and that would be all I could expect from the black President and his compatriots.
Prior to my heading back to the U.S., Jack handed me a check. “Some additional for you,” Jack said. The check was drawn on the bank of the CFU – the Caribbean Football Union, a body in which Jack technically had no power. How many $75 dollar checks, for whatever purpose, were being written by Jack, for whimsy, work and whatever, when he had no fiduciary right to disburse such funds? How many dollars went from being resources for youth in the region to being payoffs in political dramas for Jack, his family and his cronies?
PART THREE: WE CAN DO BETTER
We CAN do better. And we can do better right now. And now is the time.
Time for a governing body that values historic commitments to football while also being inclusive of everyone’s transparent intents.
Now is the time for a governance framework that doesn’t equate the investment in football of Turks and Caicos Islands with that of France, England, Germany, Spain, Brazil or Argentina (let alone Australia, Japan, or Korea), but forever affirms the equity of value of the human beings in those spaces and places. A governing body that can be possessed of more than one idea at a time, and can reflect greatness in those ideas.
We can have that right now. And now is the time.
Now is the time for a governing body perfectly, cyber-spatially transparent; one where anyone with an interest in football can go online and see, in real-time, where the investment in football goes, and, crucially, can offer up a say on that distribution.
A governing body made up of national associations themselves comprised of representatives voted in by the people. All the people.
A governing body that organizes itself in regional ways that authentically distribute power. The Americas, Asia/Oceania, Europe and Africa. Four common-sense confederations, with about 50 nations per region. A Cup of Nations that celebrates eight nations per region per tournament, an ostensible pinnacle of international power and performance football. Time for a relationship with technology that informs and supports enjoyment of the game at the highest levels, and doesn’t reflect fear or ignorance of it.
A governing body that sees power and performance football as only one of two necessary pillars of football culture, the other being Jay Coakley’s “pleasure-and-participation” forms of the sport that the other 98% of the world experience. That is, a governing body with something to say about the vitality and health aspects of enjoying something throughout the life cycle, and not just in ways that declare one retired at 35.
A governing body which celebrates fair play more than just winning at any cost, and institutionalizes its competitions with that in mind.
A governing body reflective of the mosaic of diversity found in the commitments to the game. That is, a governing body that of course includes women, the differently-abled, the poor and working poor and all kinds of others among its decision-makers, and in its determinations. A world, represented, for the world’s game.
A governing body that does more to redress racism than Aparthied opportunism and celebrity press releases every six months.
A governing body fully, authentically, practicably democratic.
By us. For us.
We can do that right now, and leave these clowns behind. We don’t have to try to “fix” FIFA; the thing that these men fear more than anything else is that you and I will wake up one day and realize that not one of us needs FIFA, as FIFA, at all.
We can simply walk away from these “leaders.”
We are the leaders we are looking for.