Chuck Blazer is a dead ringer for Santa Claus, has a pet parrot that squawks in the background during phone calls, and blogs about his travels and those of his friends — including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Accompanied by Putin's own photos, no less.
He is gregarious, witty and, with a list of confidantes and contacts spanning the globe, seems an unlikely choice to spark the worst crisis in FIFA's 107-year history, accusing two officials of offering Caribbean soccer leaders $40,000 each in exchange for votes in the presidential election. But the only American on FIFA's powerful executive committee has spent 30 years promoting soccer and has shown before that he will step in when he feels the game is being shortchanged.
"He's been a tireless advocate for soccer, not only in America but in this hemisphere," said John Skipper, the executive vice president of content for ESPN, which has broadcast the last five World Cups and has the rights to the 2014 event in Brazil.
Blazer accused FIFA vice president Jack Warner and fellow executive committee member Mohamed bin Hammam of bribery in connection with last Wednesday's election. Bin Hammam had been the lone challenger to Sepp Blatter, who was elected unopposed to a fourth term after Warner and bin Hammam were suspended pending a full investigation.
Accusations of shadiness are nothing new for FIFA. Blazer himself was described by a federal judge as giving testimony that was "generally without credibility based on his attitude and demeanor and on his evasive answers on cross-examination" when MasterCard sued FIFA, alleging its sponsorship rights were illegally terminated. Executive committee members travel the world in high style, staying in five-star hotels and eating in the finest restaurants.
(The photo on the front page of Blazer's blog shows him in a private jet with Nelson Mandela, and he mentions eating at New York's tony Eleven Madison Park after a meeting last year.)
"There are resources and there are folks who could benefit from them who are not getting them," said Mel Brennan, who worked at CONCACAF, which represents North and Central America and the Caribbean, from February 2001 to September 2003. "The use of money for political ends is the mode and modus of world football governing bodies. There's nobody in a position of power, influence, authority and leverage to say, 'Hey, all these assets, they don't belong to you,' and can we come up with another set of metrics to disperse them."
But this latest scandal carried a different weight because the allegations came from Blazer, one of FIFA's own. Making them all the more stunning was that the 66-year-old New Yorker had turned on Warner, with whom he was so closely allied after 20 years together atop CONCACAF they were referred to as one person — "ChuckandJack" or "JackandChuck" — in soccer circles.
"I was surprised in the sense that, obviously, he and Jack Warner had been so closely attached from 1990 until that happened," said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1990-98.
On Saturday, CONCACAF suspended acting president Lisle Austin, who tried to remove Blazer as secretary general in retaliation for his whistleblowing.
Blazer has refused to discuss the allegations against Warner and bin Hammam, which were compiled by former federal prosecutor John P. Collins and are being investigated by former FBI Director Louis Freeh's firm. Blazer did tell The Associated Press this week that "much more evidence" would emerge from Caribbean officials, who were advised in Zurich to hand over the money to FIFA and assist in the inquiry, or face their own investigation.
"Soccer is going to do just fine," Rothenberg said. "Does (FIFA) have to look inside in terms of governance and how it operates? The answer is yes. And I'm sure they will. I don't want to say it's much ado about nothing, it's serious. But as far as the sport is concerned, the sport is going to be just fine."
Soccer in the United States had little structure when Blazer first got involved in the 1970s. He began coaching his son's club in New Rochelle, N.Y., and was soon sitting on the boards of local and regional soccer organizations, positions that would become his entree to the national scene. He was the USSF's executive vice president from 1984-86, then became chair of the national teams committee. In 1988, he and Clive Toye, who had brought Pele to the United States as the general manager of the New York Cosmos, formed the American Soccer League.
Blazer may not have had a long history with soccer, but the NYU business graduate and entrepreneur recognized its potential, particularly in the United States.
"By the mid-80s, there was already an inexorable roll going toward the sport. The NASL had really laid a foundation," said Jim Trecker, the longtime public relations executive who served as the main spokesman for the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. "I think Chuck was the accelerant to it from a business standpoint because he brought real marketing and business savvy to the game."
It was Blazer who urged Warner to run for president of CONCACAF in 1990. When the Trinidadian won, he made Blazer the general secretary, the equivalent of a CEO. Blazer immediately began modernizing the low-budget confederation, starting with moving its headquarters from Guatemala City to New York — CONCACAF is now located in the posh Trump Tower. (Blazer lives in an apartment in the high-priced building's residential section, where neighbors have included composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.)
Seeing how popular — and lucrative — Europe's quadrennial continental championship had become, Blazer created a similar tournament for CONCACAF, called the Gold Cup. Played every two years since 1991, not only does it give national teams more games — critical for still-developing programs — it's become a massive moneymaker, with packed stadiums across the United States and lucrative contracts for broadcast rights.
This year's Gold Cup kicks off Sunday, with the champion earning a spot in the Confederations Cup, the all-important World Cup warm-up tournament.
In January 1997, Blazer beat out Rothenberg for North America's spot on FIFA's 24-man executive committee, world soccer's highest-ranking body. He is one of the few executive committee members who is not a current or former head of a national or continental federation.
CONCACAF doesn't have the same power within FIFA as the European or South American federations. But Blazer's personality and accessibility make him one of FIFA's more popular members. He is frequently described as "larger than life," with the charisma to match his big belly. (It was Blazer who said, "I don't see how you can air-condition an entire country," when Qatar said it would air condition all of its stadiums.)
His business background and technological savvy gives him significant influence, too — power that can only increase now that he's chairman of FIFA's marketing and television advisory board, a position that will give him a large say in who gets those massive World Cup TV contracts.
When NBC submitted a $350 million bid for the English- and Spanish-language U.S. rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in 2005, Blazer convinced the executive committee to turn it down. The network only wanted the World Cups, and Blazer felt it was imperative that FIFA's American broadcast partner have more of a stake in the game.
"He said, 'You'd need to be committed to the sport in the United States,'" said ESPN's Skipper. "So we put together a bid not only for the World Cup, but for the national team and for Major League Soccer."
FIFA eventually split the U.S. contract between ESPN and Univision, with ESPN paying $100 million for the English-language rights and Univision $325 million for the Spanish-language rights.
Several of FIFA's biggest sponsors have expressed concern about the latest scandal, worried they will be wind up being dragged along through the muck. Blatter has promised reform, but it is far too soon to say whether the insulated group will actually give up its cozy system or whether it is simply paying lip-service until the spotlight shifts.
While Blazer is keeping quiet now, he expressed pride in FIFA and its accomplishments in a November interview with The Associated Press.
"No system is perfect. And as you get down to many different levels, there are people who make mistakes, there are people who do things wrong," he said then. "But by and large, if you look at the accomplishments of FIFA, I'm very satisfied when I look back at the 16 years that I've been there, and the 20 years here at the confederation, that our accomplishments have been very positive.
"Does it mean it's not subject to criticism? Of course it is, and you live with that. And in the end you try to learn from those criticisms and do better."
Follow Nancy Armour at http://twitter.com/nrarmour