Wednesday, June 1, 2011
I met CONCACAF president Jack Warner in 2005. I was covering the under-17 World Cup in Peru and CONCACAF officials chose the Miraflores Marriott in the capital city, Lima, for some of their meetings. I stayed at a local youth hostel, but dropped by the hotel to interview players and coaches staying there.
I was hoping to also get some news on the ongoing meetings. The federation officials were all accomodated on a single floor of the luxury hotel. Warner, I was told by the CONCACAF event people, would not have time for a single interview - at least not with me.
Instead, I did the interviews I had already arranged with a few players, and got on the elevator to go to the lobby. The elevator went down a single floor and Warner stepped in and pushed a button on the elevator panel.
I was startled to see him, and I blurted, "You're Jack Warner."
His eyes narrowed as he looked at me, and he glared as he looked at my media badge.
"Who are you?" he barked. "What are you doing on this floor?"
Taken aback, I held up my voice recorder and notepad. "I'm a reporter. I'm here for interviews about the U17 World Cup. Would you be willing -"
Warner cut me off. "I'm not doing any interviews." He pushed another button and got off the elevator.
"This floor is restricted to reporters," he emphasized, stepping out into the hallway. Over his shoulder, I could see a large banquet being set up in the room behind him.
Warner gestured a hotel employee over and pointed to me. The elevator doors closed before I could hear what was being said.
Perhaps Warner was right to be wary of me. I certainly didn't have a good impression of him. During my time in Peru, I'd been talking to media from other CONCACAF nations, and they were united in their belief that his stint as President was corrupt. They pointed out, however, that no one was in a position to stop Warner.
"Chuck Blazer?" One scoffed when I brought up the USA official. "He's a clown, completely under Warner's thumb. Blazer is just happy to travel the world and get free food at FIFA expense. He'll never oppose Warner. "
Six years later, Blazer has finally moved against Warner, accusing the Trinidad and Tobago transport minister, along with FIFA's Mohamed Bin Hammam, of bribery charges.
Yet Blazer's image as the clean, crusading whistle blower is tough to buy when he worked so closely with Warner for so long, right through other scandals like the 2006 World Cup T&T ticket allocation mess that moved even the lenient FIFA to issue an official reprimand.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, no angel himself, stands to gain from Blazer's investigation, as Bin Hammam has now officially withdrawn from running to unseat Blatter as FIFA president.
Warner, perhaps in a play to show Blazer how powerless his bribery investigation is, stated recently that Caribbean soccer federations should vote for Blatter. Warner has long been seen as the de facto controller of all the Caribbean votes in CONCACAF. In many ways, the smaller island nations feel compelled to work together to exert influence over the larger member nations of the region, namely the USA and Mexico.
Blazer promptly reported Warner to FIFA for violating the terms of the provisional suspension Warner had been placed on during the investigation.
Suspended or not, Warner still holds sway in CONCACAF, if the actions of interim president, Lisle Austin of Barbados are any indication. Austin could be instrumental in assisting Blazer's investigation, but instead, he has moved against the entire process.
According to Reuters, Austin asked Blazer to stop working with a Chicago law firm which helped present evidence against Warner to FIFA's Ethics Committee. Collins and Collins filed the report documenting the bribery scheme that is alleged to have taken place at the May 10-11 meeting of Caribbean soccer officials in Port of Spain.
"It clearly falls under my jurisdiction as general secretary of CONCACAF," Blazer replied in defiance of Austin's cease and desist order.
It's doubtful that Blazer can really be effective, if the slumbering giant has indeed woken up with the desire to make FIFA more more transparent and honest, if the interim federation president is against him.
To a certain extent, though, Blazer also had no choice, but to launch an investigation, given he was directly contacted by Bahamas FA president Anton Sealey after vice-president Fred Lunn had been given an envelope with a cash offering of $40,000 at a "conference" set up by Bin Hammam and Warner. There is even photographic evidence of the money.
Whether the scandal will result in any substantive change at FIFA is another matter altogether.
Despite Blazer's ability to speak Spanish and an outwardly cordial relationship with Mexico's top soccer officials, it's notable that none of them, including CONCACAF vice-president Justino Compean, have made any move to support Blazer or his investigation probe.
Perhaps they don't trust Blazer moving against his old friends.
In 1989, Warner had one of his first brushes with infamy when he was accused of printing more tickets for a crucial T&T World Cup qualifier than there were seats in the stadium.
Blazer not only looked past the money-grab and potential safety of spectators involved to absolve his friend and convince Warner to run for the CONCACAF presidency on the flimsiest of reasons.
"For me, that was no issue," Blazer went on record to say about the ticket overselling. "I already knew Jack. Jack was a smart man.”
According to the SportsBusinessDaily, Blazer ran Warner's 1990 election campaign, and when they won, Warner returned the favor by naming Blazer the general secretary of CONCACAF. From that position, Blazer eventually advanced to the FIFA executive committee.
Now, with Austin attempting to fire Blazer from his CONCACAF post in a fit of pique for having the temerity to conduct the investigation in the first place, it seems karma is catching Blazer for backing Warner for so long despite all the signs of corruption that go back to their first association.
Austin's move against Blazer was countered within hours on the CONCACAF website.
"Under the CONCACAF Statutes, jurisdiction over the General Secretary rests solely with the CONCACAF Executive Committee which has taken no action. Further a majority of the Executive Committee Members have advised Mr. Austin that he does not have the authority to take such action."
Though his position may be safe for now, it seems clear that Blazer's support in the federation is shaky, and members may likely be content with the status quo. Blazer may have seen the light, and finally moved against Warner, but it is likely too little, and far too late to make a difference.