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A conversation with Ken Bensinger

The author of Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal will be doing a book event at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne this Thursday

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Ken Bensinger is the author of Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal. A veteran of the Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, Bensinger has also written, among other topics, about the troubling H2 visa immigration process.

Mr. Bensinger will be appearing at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on Thursday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m.

The Hallenstadion is a hockey arena in Zurich, Switzerland, where, on a rainy February evening in 2016, FIFA held a special election to replace Sepp Blatter, the disgraced president of its governing body. Author Ken Bensinger was in Zurich on that particular cold and rainy evening specifically to cover the event. However, Bensinger was barred from entry because there was no more room in the 15,000-seat venue.

Chuck Blazer was the key informant, whose willingness to literally wear a wire for the Feds, unveiled FIFA’s widespread corruption. Blazer, along with Jack Warner of Trinidad, committed massive fraud during their years as CONCACAF executives. Yet, Blazer kept a relatively low profile. It was Bensinger’s 2014 profile piece on the larger-than-life Blazer that shined a light on the man whose downfall sparked the FIFA corruption scandal that rocked the world.

Bensinger had captured “lightning in a bottle”, as he calls it. From the profile of Glazer, Bensinger soon traveled the world to weave together the far-reaching corruption of an organization drunk on hubris. From that came Red Card.

Failing to be one of the 900 media members credentialed wasn’t particularly surprising, Bensinger told me: “A lot of doors shut in my face.” A lot of people didn’t want to talk to him because of fear of reprisal or because they wanted to write their own book.

But Bensinger persisted — and that persistence paid off. Resigned to watch the election from a bar, Bensinger’s phone rang. On the other end was Sepp Blatter himself, inviting Bensinger to watch the election with him. A short taxi ride later, Bensinger was beside Blatter, granting him a vantage point he would never have gotten from a crowded bar.

The resulting book is a fast-moving and — surprisingly readable — narrative of a very complex tale of deceit and greed. It was designed to tell the tale from the viewpoint of the law enforcement officials — whose background in organized crime turned out to be a fantastic prerequisite for infiltrating the world’s largest sporting governing body. But, Bensinger says, even officials who have years of dealing with some of the world’s most hardened criminals were not prepared for Jack Warner. Not wanting to give out spoilers here but Bensinger’s book gives a searing portrait of the corrupt Trinidadian at his best (that is, the worst).

Jack Warner’s history of corruption and misdeeds prompted this back-and-forth with John Oliver in 2015:

As to the future of FIFA? Bensinger is cautiously optimistic, noting the patronage system still exists and, with it, there remains an entitlement problem. There are FIFA officials who feel the “money is their right; they deserve it.” Bensinger noted that, even earlier in the year, a Costa Rican soccer official plead guilty to accepting bribes after the team went with New Balance as their kit sponsor.

There continue to be more scandals, but they are getting discovered faster, and the resulting fallout has given the media ample ammunition to go further than merely accepting the denials coming from FIFA officials at face value.

“There is progress,” Bensinger says. “They’re making baby steps, but they have a long ways to go.”