- Chuck Blazer died Wednesday night at 72, leaving behind a legacy clouded by his copious amounts of corrupt acts while in power at CONCACAF and FIFA.
Chuck Blazer was a robust two decades into a career that forever will be identified with greed, corruption and the terrifying thought of a luxury apartment reserved for cats when he was given Major League Soccer’s prestigious Commissioner’s Award.
"Chuck is one of the most important people in the history of soccer in this country. Those in the soccer business know how important he is to the development of this sport,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said upon the honor’s presentation in November 2006. "Not every American knows that the man behind the scenes pushing this sport is Chuck."
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 2006 was the second year after which Blazer, who lived in Manhattan’s Trump Tower down the hall from his cats, paid no income tax. But he most certainly had income. That particular 12 months of IRS evasion represented the fifth of 10 counts in an indictment that led to Blazer’s 2015 confession and conviction for racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and more. He committed those crimes while serving as a member of FIFA’s once-all-powerful executive committee and as CONCACAF’s general secretary. He committed them while “pushing this sport” in the USA.
When fans and critics claim they’re “against modern football,” they’re shaking their fist at a sport Blazer helped create. The 72-year-old New Yorker, who died Wednesday after battling cancer and other ailments for several years, was the rotund, privileged embodiment of money’s hold over global soccer. He represented both excess and opportunity. He didn’t grow up kicking a ball or longing to put the game on the U.S. map. Rather, Blazer was a shrewd businessman, a brash opportunist and a visionary—in the literal sense of the word—who first got to know soccer, along with millions of American parents, through his kids.
Less than 10 years later, he was an elected U.S. Soccer Federation official charged with jump-starting a dormant men’s national team program. In 1988, he co-founded the American Soccer League, whose lineage connects directly to today’s USL and NASL. Blazer then went on to cast his shadow in soccer’s true corridors of power, from which he launched the CONCACAF Gold Cup, helped bring the 1994 World Cup to the USA and negotiated increasingly valuable TV, ad and marketing deals worth tens of millions of dollars. American soccer benefited. Some of that money helped stabilize MLS during its rocky adolescence. And a lot of it found its way into Blazer’s pockets.
The gray area is as vast as Blazer’s personality, ambition, beard and belly. He helped. Pro soccer, the Gold Cup and the World Cup are good things. But Blazer also played a massive role in the construction, reinforcement and protection of a criminal apparatus that siphoned millions from projects and players who needed real support. He enabled the other 17 men indicted two years ago, not to mention the likes of Sepp Blatter and Jérôme Valcke. Blazer became a vital informant against corrupt FIFA and CONCACAF officials not because of a late-in-life, Vaderesque epiphany, but because he'd been caught. He was sick and didn’t want to go to prison.
It took a lot of time and effort by a lot of investigators to pick up on Blazer’s paper trail. For that reason, it's believable that Garber and the MLS board knew nothing of Blazer’s malfeasance when they honored him 11 years go. But it’s hard not to believe they weren’t curious about, or at least bemused by, his lifestyle. Blazer and his primary CONCACAF co-conspirator, the Trinidadian Bond villain Jack Warner, were a constant target of skepticism and conjecture. Everyone wondered, but nobody really knew. U.S. Soccer president and FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati is a long-time friend of Blazer who was investigated thoroughly as the government built its case against global soccer. And it found nothing. Gulati’s deniability looks legitimate. Blazer had concocted layers of stories, lies and covers that explained his excess. He was soccer’s Bernie Madoff. Delusion is contagious, competent criminals are hard to catch and there’s no empirical reason to believe Gulati, Garber or the rest of the current American soccer establishment was cognizant or complicit.
But they’re stained—sullied by that 2006 honor and their genuflecting toward a man given too much credit for the growth of the American game. Garber was right 11 years ago—not every American knew about Blazer’s contributions. Far fewer are aware of them now. Like many successful businesspeople, Blazer was adept at spotting the turn of the tide. He didn’t create the demand. He just noticed it earlier.
Blazer wound up coaching his son’s soccer team because American kids in the mid-to-late 1970s started gravitating toward soccer. From 1974 through 1980–just six years!–U.S. Youth Soccer experienced an eight-fold increase in registered players. Blazer had nothing to do with that or the impact the likes of Pelé, Johann Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer had on the imagination of so many future soccer players, coaches, investors, administrators, journalists and parents. Blazer was a surfer who caught the wave at just the right time. The tide was already rising. He had little influence on the inevitable impact so many Gen Xers and immigrants would have. Had Blazer stuck with manufacturing smiley face buttons, we’d almost certainly be just where we are now. Someone would’ve thought of the Gold Cup. Landon Donovan and Christian Pulisic still probably would’ve enjoyed kicking a ball around their backyard. Growth doesn’t require graft.
And so Garber, Gulati and the rest of the domestic soccer community are left to contemplate the legacy of their criminal colleague. There’s no question that Blazer, regardless of his motivation, helped stoke the sport’s American flame. But in honoring him even 11 years ago, the U.S. soccer establishment shifted too much credit from those who built the sport in more honest ways. The millions of players and fans at the grassroots, whether they were born here or arrived—they’re the ones behind the scenes. Blazer was the guy in the smoke-filled room, spending their money on private jets and other self-aggrandizing nonsense.
U.S. Soccer and this country's league owners and administrators must never forget their constituency. If honoring Blazer was done out of ignorance, so be it. Mistakes happen. But now they know better, and they have the opportunity to address his legacy and that silly award by steering as much time, money, attention and more money as possible toward the members of the U.S. soccer community who Blazer left behind.