Fifa Scandal Tests the Legend of Trinidad’s Robin Hood

June 9, 2015

A framed portrait of Jack Warner hangs above the reception of the João Havelange Centre of Excellence on the outskirts of Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago’s sultry capital, while the walls are plastered with sports awards given to the now disgraced former Fifa vice-president.

The complex, home to a football pitch and training facilities as well as a hotel and convention centre, was built on land Mr Warner is accused of owning. The facility was allegedly paid for with an estimated $26m of football bodies’ money filtered through Mr Warner, the Trinidadian former head of Concacaf, the football organisation for North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The money included a $10m “gift” from South Africa “for development [of] football in your country”, which US investigators allege was a bribe to secure Mr Warner’s support for South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup.

Mr Warner, a former chairman of Trinidad’s ruling party, is the most high-profile of the 18 people to be indicted or to have pleaded guilty to corruption charges brought by the US Department of Justice over allegations that executives of world football’s governing body took bribes of more than $150m in a culture of “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption.

He is also accused by the US of having orchestrated the distribution of envelopes containing $40,000 each to secure more than two dozen votes from delegates of the Caribbean Football Union. His sway over the regional voting bloc has long been considered the source of his power within Fifa. The money allegedly came from Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari who in 2011 ran against Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s powerful president who was forced to resign last week.

Mr Warner’s indictment has put the small Caribbean island at the centre of a global scandal. “There is no doubt that the cash handouts in Trinidad set off the chain of events” that led the DoJ to act, says Simon Strong, president of Tenacitas International, an investigations firm in Miami. “It all goes back to Warner.”

While allegations of corruption at Fifa are hardly new, football fans have been left aghast by the extent of the charge sheet against figures including Mr Warner, who is free on bail in Trinidad fighting extradition to the US.

Yet on his home island, some see the 72-year-old MP as a Robin Hood character who stole from football’s big shots to give to Caribbean football — even if he may have helped himself to some of the spoils along the way.

In his constituency’s office in Chaguanas, Joseanne Khan says of him: “He is like Jesus because he was betrayed . . . He is the black guy taking the rap.”

Sunity Maharaj, a commentator with the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies, a think-tank, says: “He’s a man of the people. And he sees himself as someone who has done nothing wrong.”

Mr Warner rose through the ranks as a protégé of Havelange, Mr Blatter’s predecessor as Fifa president. Chuck Blazer, a former ally in Concacaf who turned US informant, reportedly said of him: “Jack is a measure of reality for those who like bullshit.”

Many credit him with putting Caribbean football on the map in a region previously better known for cricket. Others believe Trinidad is being dragged through the mud because of him.

“For a while everyone in the Caribbean felt they owed him for giving them so much,” says a former adviser. “Now, people are distancing from him.”

Mr Warner’s first football scandal came in 1989 when Trinidad & Tobago was close to qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, when he printed thousands of extra tickets to sell. He is also accused by former team members of pocketing millions of dollars promised as bonuses to players for qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

“We don’t know what is true and what is fiction when it comes to him,” says Brent Sancho, Trinidad sports minister who played on the 2006 team. “It’s a sad thing that Jack Warner is seen as a Robin Hood here.”

One thing seems clear: Mr Warner will not go quietly. Last week he threatened to unleash an “avalanche” of evidence against his government, Fifa and Mr Blatter. “I will give them my knowledge of financial transactions at Fifa, including Sepp Blatter,” Mr Warner said, accusing his former boss of tampering with Trinidad’s 2010 election. Fifa has declined to comment in response, while a senior government official dismissed the claims as “empty threats”.

Trinidad’s attorney-general says he is awaiting an extradition request for Mr Warner from US authorities. Mr Warner, known also as “Teflon Jack” for his ability to survive past scandals, could take his case to the Privy Council in London, his country’s highest court of appeal.

Jamaal Shabazz, a former coach of the Trinidad & Tobago national team, says of Mr Warner’s unrepentant attitude: “For him, this is normal behaviour. Warner is a creation of Concacaf and Fifa.”

He too sees Mr Warner as a Caribbean Robin Hood but says his mistake was to become too greedy. “He should have been more selfless. He did not give enough,” Mr Shabazz explains. If he had, “people today would stand with him as they stood with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro.”

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