How the Cayman Islands became a FIFA power

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — Chickens scurried about on Friday morning as a bulldozer spread crushed rock for a new soccer field with artificial turf at the Cayman Islands Football Association.
It might seem unlikely that FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, has spent $2.2 million since 2002 to build a new headquarters for the soccer association and to fund two planned fields, given that the land is swampy and a grass field struggled to exist in brackish conditions.
FIFA’s generosity might seem even more improbable, considering that the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax and tourist haven, is ranked 191st among the world’s 209 national soccer teams. The team has never played in a World Cup. And the entire population of the islands, about 58,000, would not come close to filling the world’s biggest soccer stadiums.
Yet the field under construction illustrates one of the complex ways in which Sepp Blatter has maintained an iron grip on power for the last 17 years as the president of FIFA. He was elected to a fifth term on Friday.
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Caption: Work was underway in the Cayman Islands on Friday on a lot where new soccer fields are planned, with money from FIFA. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times
It also highlights a dynamic that empowers some FIFA officials with outsize authority to make decisions on lucrative contracts, perhaps prompting some to cross the line into criminal acts. One powerful soccer official from the Caymans is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes, some of which was diverted to building a pool for his private residence in Georgia.
Under FIFA’s system, even the smallest country has the same voting power as the biggest and payments from FIFA for fields and other projects —perfectly legal and documented — help to ensure allegiance to Mr. Blatter, even as he faces withering criticism in the face of accusations of rampant corruption in international soccer.
The Caymans became central to a racketeering and bribery scandal that engulfed the sport last week. The official, Jeffrey Webb, the longtime president of the Cayman Islands Football Association and the head of soccer’s regional governing body for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, known as Concacaf, was one of 14 officials indicted by the United States authorities on Wednesday. His chief attaché, Costas Takkas, was also indicted.
Once viewed as a reformer, and a potential president of FIFA, Mr. Webb is accused of seeking and receiving bribes worth millions of dollars from sports marketing firms that bought and then resold broadcast, marketing and sponsorship rights to regional soccer tournaments. Elaborate methods were used to try to disguise the payments, the indictment said.
Mr. Webb, 50, is said to be fighting extradition from Zurich, where he was arrested. He has been replaced as president of Concacaf; his downfall shocked and embarrassed many in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere.
Tall and athletic in appearance, Mr. Webb had an understated manner that gave him an endearing quality as an apparent reformer, said Stephen Sigmund, a New York public affairs consultant who assisted Mr. Webb with media training, speech writing and publicity in 2012.
“The entire pitch was that he was the guy who was going to clean Concacaf up rather than clean it out,” Mr. Sigmund said.
Yet even in scandal, the Caymans remain in some aspects as powerful as Germany, Argentina, Brazil or any other world soccer power. Like the other 208 national soccer federations in FIFA, the Cayman Islands gets one vote in the quadrennial election for FIFA’s president.

Playing Politics
Island

Jeffrey Webb, left, with Sepp Blatter, is the longtime president of the Cayman Islands Football Association offices. He was arrested in Zurich last week. Credit Carlos Jasso/Reuters
Mr. Blatter’s strategy of democratizing soccer and building up its popularity around the world — he steered the 2010 World Cup to Africa, where the Olympics have never been held — has also included a shrewd political component.
He has helped build his base and assured support by earmarking payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to each of FIFA’s member federations. FIFA also makes separate grants for construction of fields and bestows other financial assistance — money that is indispensable to small, less wealthy nations that are almost entirely dependent on FIFA for funding.
“Mr. Blatter has played a very smart game,” said David Larkin, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in international sports and is a director of an organization called ChangeFIFA. “The Cayman Islands represents how that financial assistance program keeps the lights on. That means these small soccer associations are beholden to the leaders of FIFA.”
Since 2008, FIFA has sent grants worth $1.8 million to the Cayman Islands to build two soccer fields. Seven years later, though, the first field remains weeks away from completion. Plans for a dormitory and a gym have not materialized. A final grant, for $500,000 in March 2014, was for the installation of artificial turf, FIFA noted on its website, because “the current grass field cannot survive in the low-level saltwater environment.”
The project was part of a plan by Mr. Webb to invigorate soccer in the Cayman Islands with a state-of-the-art training center. And Mr. Blatter could hardly afford to ignore Mr. Webb, especially when Mr. Webb became the president of Concacaf in May 2012. In that position, Mr. Webb presided over a group of 35 FIFA member nations — about 17 percent of the total votes in FIFA’s presidential election.
“In order to run voting blocs, you need someone to whip up your votes and keep everyone in line,” Mr. Larkin said. “It’s classic pork-barrel politics.”
In October 2013, Mr. Blatter attended a gala dinner in the Caymans to celebrate Mr. Webb’s election as president of Concacaf and his appointment to FIFA’s executive committee. He was clearly a rising star. Mr. Webb was named to FIFA’s finance committee and appointed to lead a task force to combat racism in soccer.

Even if it was only political flattery, and a way to cement Mr. Webb’s fealty in the 2015 FIFA presidential election, Mr. Blatter suggested at the gala that Mr. Webb might succeed him.

Of course, Mr. Webb needed more experience in wielding power, Mr. Blatter said, cautioning, “Let him grow up.”

Mr. Webb, who also worked as a banker, said that yes, he “definitely” would like to be president of FIFA one day, telling the BBC: “It’s about giving back; it’s about serving the game. Who knows what lies in the future?” He was known to make fun of the extravagant Concacaf headquarters in Trump Tower in Manhattan, where Chuck Blazer, a flamboyant former general secretary of the organization, kept an aviary for his pet macaw.
Mr. Blazer secretly pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and income tax evasion, the authorities revealed Wednesday.
Murky Finances
Concacaf has long been plagued by murky financial dealings.
Among the 14 soccer and marketing officials indicted on Wednesday was Jack Warner, a disgraced former president of Concacaf from Trinidad and Tobago who is accused of, among other things, receiving a $10 million payout to influence voting on the 2010 World Cup, which was awarded to South Africa.
As Mr. Warner’s successor, Mr. Webb positioned himself as a reformer who would bring accountability and transparency to Concacaf.

“We must move the clouds and allow the sunshine in,” Mr. Webb told reporters upon his election.

Instead, the authorities said, business continued as usual. About the time Mr. Webb was elected in May 2012, his indictment said, he sought a $3 million bribe from Traffic Sports USA, a Miami-based sports marketing company that bought the broadcast and marketing rights to qualifying matches in the Caribbean for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

The bribe was solicited through Mr. Takkas, a longtime associate of Mr. Webb’s and a former general secretary of the Cayman Islands Football Association, the indictment said.
Blatter

Since 2008, FIFA has sent grants worth $1.8 million to the Cayman Islands to build two soccer fields. The Caymans are ranked 191st among FIFA’s 209 national member teams. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times

An intricate scheme was used to conceal Mr. Webb’s identity as the true beneficiary of the bribe money, the authorities said. Part of the money was paid to the account of a contractor who built a pool for Mr. Webb at a residence of his in Loganville, Ga.
Mr. Takkas, a Greek Cypriot who lives in Britain, seemed to be a protector of Mr. Webb’s and was “friendly but probing,” said Mr. Sigmund, the public affairs consultant.
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“He struck me as a type I’ve seen in politics, who attach themselves to a politician and rise and fall with that person,” Mr. Sigmund said.
Mr. Webb solicited another bribe for $1.1 million from Traffic Sports USA in 2012, the indictment said, involving the commercial rights to Concacaf’s premier international tournaments, the Gold Cup and the Champions League.
In an attempt to conceal the bribe, the authorities said, a false invoice was used to make it appear as if the money were being paid to a Panamanian company that manufactured soccer uniforms and balls.
In 2013, when Traffic Sports USA received a contract renewal worth $60 million for exclusive sponsorship rights to the Gold Cup and the Concacaf Champions League, Mr. Webb sought yet another payoff from the company, the indictment said.
“Though Webb wanted more, the parties eventually settled on $2 million as the size of the bribe payment,” according to the indictment.
Eventually, some of those involved began expressing concern about the practice of paying bribes. At a meeting in Queens in March 2014, the indictment said, Aaron Davidson, the president of Traffic Sports USA, wondered in a conversation that was apparently recorded: “Is it illegal? It is illegal. Within the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.”
Mr. Davidson was among those indicted Wednesday. Apparently at that same March 2014 meeting, Mr. Davidson also raised the issue of a bribe to be paid to Mr. Webb by another sports marketing company, Datisa, the indictment said.

pitch
That was part of the biggest scheme described by the authorities: a plan by Datisa to pay $110 million in bribes to a number of South American officials and to Mr. Webb to gain the commercial rights to one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments, the Copa America, the South American championship. A 100th-anniversary tournament is scheduled to be played in the United States in 2016.

It is not clear what amount Mr. Webb was due to receive, but $40 million was paid out to various recipients, the indictment said.
On May 1, 2014, the top officials of Datisa met in South Florida and discussed the bribery scheme, the indictment said. One of the officials, an Argentine named Alejandro Burzaco, told the others, “All can get hurt because of this subject,” and added, “All of us go to prison.”
The possibility that Mr. Webb might go to prison stunned many here.
He was popular, a native of George Town, where many people are tourists and expatriates. He moved in circles with the political elite and brought an estimated $30 million to the local economy by drawing soccer tournaments to the Caymans.
Mr. Webb was said to have devoted himself so fully to developing soccer in the Caymans that he once mowed fields and scrubbed toilets, even working in an office that had no phones.
“I’m surprised; it seemed like he was honest and upright,” said Violet Wilson, a Red Cross volunteer who met Mr. Webb several times. “It’s really embarrassing. It hurts a small island for him to hold such a big job and mess it up.”
In this insular place, news of Mr. Webb’s indictment brought silence as well as disbelief. Government and soccer officials said little or nothing Friday. Osbourne Bodden, the Cayman Islands sports minister, did not mention Mr. Webb’s name in a brief statement, saying only that his ministry was not involved in the soccer investigation. A spokeswoman for the Cayman soccer federation removed all of her contact information from the website.
“I’ve been asked to have no comment,” said James Rich, the administrator of the Cayman Islands Premier League. Asked if he was shocked, Mr. Rich said: “I don’t think shock is the right word. I don’t know the right word. Let the appropriate means take place and see what happens.”

Because Mr. Webb was so popular and successful, “the country hasn’t looked deeper into what else he might have been associated with,” said David R. Legge, the owner of the Cayman Compass newspaper. “Now that this story has broken internationally, that is changing overnight. Scrutiny is beginning in earnest of what other activities and who else might have been involved.”

Source: ERÉ LONGMANMAY/The New York Times

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