Book Review: Red Card – A Fresh FIFA Perspective

by | Jul 2, 2018

Another year. Another Fifa corruption book. But ‘Red Card – Fifa and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports,’ by Buzzfeed News investigative journalist Ken Bensinger, is much more, offering a necessary, highly-readable perspective, from someone outside the established core of Fifa’s journalistic scourges, and a tantalising prospect of much-desired sequels.

Hopefully, thoes responsible for book titles will show more imagination, if those sequels emerge. Otherwise, after “Foul” and “Red Card,” we might be down to “Indirect free-kick on the edge of the box” if the full gamut of Fifa corruption is recorded in print.

The title is my only major complaint about Bensinger’s account of the ‘FIFA Case,’ which went to trial last December, and the seven-plus years’ painstaking work by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revene (Tax) Service (IRS) which brought it to New York City’s Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. Well…that and the Subbuteo ref cover of the UK edition. The US edition’s all-red cover is borderline-iconic and much better on almost every conceivable level.

My articles on that trial were nicked from leaned heavily on Bensinger’s comprehensive, comprehensible coverage. And Bensinger’s own claims that the case was “far too sprawling to capture or make sense of in these pages” are disproved by those pages, which very much “capture and make sense” of the FBI’s investigations.

Red Card’s American perspective makes much of its material familiar to the part of its target audience for whom Fifa corruption needs no introduction. But, for example, David Conn’s 2017 tome, ‘The Fall and Rise of the House of Fifa,” isn’t exactly news but is still excellent. And Bensinger’s history lesson, the Fifa reigns of Brazilian autocrat Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid (‘Joao’) Havelange (no…really) and disgraced, gnomic successor Sepp Blatter, informs the uninformed without trying anyone’s patience.

Bensinger isn’t yet as good a writer as Conn. He uses a neat turn of phrase to end chapters and sub-chapters, where Conn has a neat turn of phrase for every page and more. But he provides a 300-page example of a ‘second pair of eyes’ freshening perspective on ‘old’ material. And while he occasionally drifts into the arena of cheerleading for US law-enforcement, this is mitigated by his pitch-perfect rendition of the story of investigators AND the investigated.

Bensinger provides new information on and insight into the familiar territory of repugnant Fifa ex-vice president Jack Warner, indisputably the book’s biggest crook. He recounts the gruesome fate of Warner’s Caribbean Football Union president predecessor, casting it as the repugnant Warner’s “big break.”

When recounting the arrest, in Miami, of Warner’s sons, Daryan and Daryll, Bensinger reveals that FBI attempts to force him to “come clean” failed because of a newly-exposed, more virulent strain of Warner’s repugnance, witnessing the arrests, but emotionally unmoved beyond fleeing to his native Trinidad for his own legal safety. Or, as I screamed, “the **** did nothing.”

And Bensinger is genuinely revelatory on how the best Fifa journalists actually hindered investigators. Andrew Jennings shared an “obsessive drive to root out corruption” with Berryman. But the FBI was infuriated by Daily Telegraph leaks of investigation secrets. As the “highly aggressive” UK press was “deeply sourced in law enforcement,” the FBI believed the leaks came from “Scotland Yard.” So, they stopped working with foreign law-enforcement and journalists entirely. “Jennings, helpful though he might be, was out.”

However, his best decision is casting IRS agent Steve Berryman as the story’s ‘star’ (and, yes, like all Spurs fans who remember the 70s because they WERE really there, I did a double-take at the name).

Berryman asks “what could be more fun…an accountant with a gun” (yes, even tax officials are armed in America). But Bensinger portrays an ultra-diligent agent, excited by financially-complex crime, the perfect man for the Fifa case. “We do the financial s**t nobody else wants to touch,” Berryman says of his employers. And when Fifa case information, subpoenaed bank records etc, started “rolling in,” it was, for Berryman, “like Christmas.”

His intensity manifested itself in heart problems which became life-threatening when he was shadowing Fifa figures at 2012’s London Olympics, halfway through the book. By then, you have long been rooting for him. Indeed, I would have been genuinely perturbed by Bensinger’s recounting of Berryman “struggling to stabilize his straining heart,” if I hadn’t remembered Berryman’s impressive Fifa-trial testimony last December.

The FBI was “stuck” when Berryman offered his services in August 2011, by which time their Fifa investigation was “almost a year” long. This disembowels the theory, most-often spouted by the disgraced Blatter, that the investigation was revenge for Fifa awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar ahead of the US. And, Bensinger notes, “the true hero” behind the fall of notorious 1920s mobster Al Capone, was Frank J. Wilson, an “agent for the Treasury Department’s Intelligence Unit,” now the IRS “Criminal Investigation Division,” Berryman’s employers. Tax was how Berryman ‘unstuck’ the FBI.

His interest was piqued by a Reuters News agency piece on FBI investigations into larger-than-life (and most other things), New York-domiciled Fifa vice-president Charles Gordon ‘Chuck’ Blazer (Bensinger expertly tops-and-tails his Fifa history lesson with Berryman’s discovery of this article). Blazer was a long-time leading figure in North and Central American soccer, his proclivity for being sacked from various roles somehow not preventing him from landing on his employment feet time-and-again.

Berryman’s search for Blazer’s tax returns produced three magic words: “no records found,” giving the FBI leverage to press Blazer to admit his fiscal misdeeds, explain how his ill-gotten gains were ill-gotten-gained and, crucially, to ‘flip’ on other world soccer chiefs. And although we ‘know the result’ of Blazer’s 30th November 2011 meeting with Berryman and FBI special agent Jared Randall, Bensinger still conveys the attendant tension before Blazer “let out a long, slow sigh” and said “I want to help”

The lexicon of FBI investigation has become widely familiar since ex-FBI chief Robert Mueller was appointed to head a probe into potential “links and co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” in May 2017.

And Bensinger draws regular parallels between the two probes and their methodologies. Especially in their reliance on what the FBI terms “confidential human sources,” i.e. informants. “This was how big cases were won,” Bensinger explains. “You flip one guy and he helps you gather evidence to flip another and that one helps you get two more…”

This can be classless work, however much the ends justify the means. Attempts to pressure Warner through his sons’ arrests were borderline-blackmail. Bensinger almost relishes law-enforcement agents’ ability to “certainly put a good scare into” one relatively minor potential co-operator.

Even Berryman, a borderline-saint for 219 pages, was over-anxious to continue pressuring one very important co-operator while they underwent extensive chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. But he also used his IRS status in a less morally dubious manner, lulling potential co-operators into a false sense of security by telling them his investigation was “just a boring tax case.”

Bensinger reveals the Fifa case role of “retired British spy” Christopher Steele, the ‘Trump Dossier’ source (yes, Russian prostitutes, the ‘pee-pee tape,’ THAT dossier). And he notes with a care suggesting lawyers’ involvement, that “in what seemed like a strange co-incidence, several suspects,” in an illegal-gambling investigation of Russian gangsters, “happened to live, just like Blazer,” in Trump’s gaudy, eponymous New York ‘Tower.’ Just saying, like.

He expertly conveys the dawning, Berryman-inspired realisation among FBI personnel with organised crime-busting experience that the Fifa case centred on organised criminal violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO), which became Red Card’s centre-point too.

And he is good on characters’ back stories and quirks (such as lead prosecutor Evan Norris not owning a telly). Although he is a shade over-focused on their fashion-senses. Bensinger, a pre-bald Javier Mascherano doppelganger with a brooding red, tight-collared shirt and informal, well-worn lighter red sweater…you get the picture.

The book has a mostly happy ending. Norris bought a telly. And multiple trial convictions of Paraguayan Juan Angel Napout and Brazilian Jose Maria Marin, two ‘leading’ South American soccer corruptors added to many previously-obtained guilty pleas. However, the third defendant, Peruvian Manuel Burga, was acquitted of the only, RICO conspiracy, charge against him, which, Bensinger reports, “stung” prosecutors.

And the book’s epilogue is possibly not the story’s epilogue, as the last two chapters are especially unexpected. “A Zealous Advocate,” is a bizarre, ten-page revelation that, even if there was no high-level Russian meddling in 2016’s US presidential elections, there was in November 2015’s escape from US justice of Uruguayan-American Fifa vice-president Eugenio Figueredo, as Swiss legal authorities “shockingly” ruled that he be extradited to Uruguay.

This previously-unheralded Russian involvement came from on very high, Russian Football Union chief, Fifa Executive Committee member, World Cup local organising committee chair and Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko. For reasons which Bensinger doesn’t fully explain, possibly because he can’t, Russia thought it worth assisting David Torres-Siegrist, the “zealous advocate” of the chapter’s title to zealously advocate Figueredo’s cause.

Torres-Siegrist “had never felt the need to own a passport” and, Bensinger noted in his, for once pertinent, fashion-sense comment, “favoured shorts and flip-flops.” His legal qualifications were two-bit alongside the Harvard-educated Norris and he was hired because Figueredo was…his assistant soccer coach’s uncle. Yet, the Californian was suddenly international jet-setting between Zurich, New York and St. Petersburg. And he…won.

In July 2015, Mutko assured him, face-to-face, in St Petersburg’s Konstantin Palace, that “all available resources would be given to this,” as Russia didn’t want America to “blemish Fifa and, by extension, Russia’s World Cup” (which, after so many arrest that May, seemed a bit late). And, hey presto, Uruguay’s “paper-thin” arguments prevailed. Bensinger loses his impartiality over this issue. But you can see why.

However, in the final chapter, Berryman gets permission to “train his attentions” on Asia’s Football Confederation (AFC). Agents pressed an un-named AFC national association president for some “innocuous documents” and left Berryman’s business card, in case said president had any ‘concerns.’ He did. And Berryman, who “knew he had been taking bribes for years” calmly ‘assured’ him that it was “just a boring tax case.” Hopefully, said president, about whose identity Bensinger leaves plentiful clues, doesn’t read Red Card.

And there, Bensinger leaves the main body of the book hanging. An expert combination of ’always’ leaving ‘em wanting more and pitching a sequel to his publishers.

In the midst of a terrifying detailed ‘notes’ section at the end, Bensinger ultimately sheds his previous modesty to suggest that while “capturing all the detail and nuance of a case so sprawling and complex would be an impossible endeavour at any length,” he nonetheless believed that “this is the most complete and accurate accounting of the Fifa Case to date.” And he’s not wrong. Go read.