Jack Warner—Trinidad's 'Robin Hood'—Will Never Accept the Blame
Jack Warner is considered emblematic of the problems at FIFA. But in his native Trinidad and Tobago, Warner is often seen as a Robin Hood figure taking from the rich and giving to the poor
When I first arrived in Port-of-Spain in June 2013 to work as a reporter at the Trinidad Guardian, the buzz in the air was about a new political party, the ILP (Independent Liberal Party) and its founder, the former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.
Two years had passed since the Guardian had reported FIFA committee member Chuck Blazer's accusations that Mohammed bin Hammam had bribed CONCACAF members, and the Telegraph had obtained a secret film of Warner handing out brown envelopes stuffed with Hammam's bribe cash to the 25 representatives of the Caribbean Football Union.
Warner had just been asked by Trinidad's prime minister to resign his cabinet position as Minister of National Security and MP for Chaguanas West; Warner said he took home just $1 a month for this job and gave the rest to charity. He didn't need the money. In fact, rumours were that he had privately funded the government's election campaign.
Without any sense of disgrace, he instantly formed his own party, brought on board senior figures from the political establishment and adopted the colour green, in contrast to the red of the PNM and yellow of the UNC, Trinidad's long-standing bitter parliamentary rivals.
Warner almost immediately turned on his former colleagues in government, calling names, accusing people of corruption and of having accepted bribes and gifts. He did the same of reporters who had been trailing his activities; he did the same of former FIFA colleagues.
He set up his own newspaper, Sunshine, to broadcast his counter-accusations. Like a naughty boy caught in the playground stealing sweets, he was telling tales, snitching, ratting out his pals. In essence, Warner was telling Trinidad and the world: 'everybody else is doing it, so why can't I?'
Last Friday (29 May) Warner left the prison in uptown Port-of-Spain — rammed with gunmen, bandits and drug runners — where he had spent the night before posting £250,000 bail. He quickly called a meeting of the ILP and recorded a video he later posted on social media saying he had "served this country fearlessly and faithfully," that during his time in FIFA he had conducted himself "consistently with all of the international sport's practices" and that at no point in time had he done anything "contrary to Trinidad and Tobago."
"The actions of FIFA no longer concern me," he said in a statement just before his arrest.
"The people of Trinidad and Tobago will know that I quit FIFA and international football more than four years ago," Warner said, still claiming his innocence despite the FBI's amassed evidence. "I have fought fearlessly against all forms of injustice and corruption. I have been afforded no due process and I have not even been questioned in this matter. I reiterate that I am innocent of any charges. I have walked away from the politics of world football to immerse myself in the improvement of lives in this country where I shall, God willing, die."
He blamed his indictment for multiple fraud, racketeering and money laundering charges on politicking around the Trinidad general elections that take place this year, and on Israel for trying to delay a vote on a Palestinian FA motion to expel them from FIFA.
In his short video, Warner congratulated himself for "single-handedly" taking Trinidad and Tobago to the World Cup in 2006 as the smallest nation ever to compete in the tournament (its population is just 1.3 million).
He forgot to mention the revolt amongst the playing staff who Warner had neglected to compensate for their historic achievement. The players only received their agreed fee for their World Cup appearances eight years later in 2014 after an interminable legal struggle against the government. When the players won their battle, Warner claimed they did not deserve the payments as they "never scored a goal nor won a match [at Germany 2006.]"
The team's goalkeeper Shaka Hislop responded to Warner's "single-handed" claims by tweeting, "arrogance and dishonesty are an ugly mix."
Another of those unpaid players was Brent Sancho. The defender had his dreadlocks pulled by Peter Crouch in the 83rd minute of a Group B game in Nuremburg, allowing Crouch to head home England's opening goal; Sancho is now Minister of Sport in Trinidad.
Last week, Sancho told Trinidad's Newsday, "The only real surprise is that it has taken so long [to indict Warner]. There was the Bin Hammam situation right here in Trinidad. He's not untouchable, but it is unprecedented. FIFA has been a law unto themselves for quite a while."
Sancho said the Warner arrest signals a turning point for Caribbean football.
"It's a historic day in terms of how people will conduct business. We, at home, and the TTFA [Trinidad and Tobago Football Association] need to be cognisant of this. I'm not saying they have done anything illegal but we must be aware that accountability is a must. People must remember how powerful CONCACAF is in terms of voting because of the number of countries we have. It has a lot to say in terms of everything going on at FIFA and what is playing out right now."
With all respect to Sancho, his appointment is the equivalent of making Tony Adams a cabinet minister, but the Trinidad government had run out of options after the previous incumbent sports minister had been caught smoking weed in a hotel room and forced to quit parliament for – you guessed it – corruption.
Corruption is a part of life in Trinidad, a country that struck oil decades ago and is still being fleeced by individuals in positions of power today. The culture is to grab the money and run while you can. Nobody will stop you – for the right price they will gladly look the other way.
As for the Sancho-Crouch hair-pull, you might consider it a microcosm of sporting power relationships. Maradona fists a ball into the England net in Mexico City at the 1986 World Cup and we harbour a sense of injustice for thirty years; Crouch yanks back a defender's hair and not an eyelid is batted by England fans, officials, players or pundits. The minnows were simply eaten by the shark. Who was going to stand up and shout for them?
Warner, that's who. Many Trinidadians consider him a hero for what he has done for the country and the region's football. At the ILP meeting on the day of his release, he received a hero's welcome.
On social media, Warner was showered with well wishes from hundreds of supporters still loyal to the self-styled "young black boy" from Rio Claro in the south of Trinidad, who went from being a teacher to the head of the Caribbean Football Union in 1983.
"Nothing can keep u down old boy god's blessing," commented one supporter on the Trinidad Guardian's Facebook page underneath Warner's defiant video message. "I am on your side, may god bless you."
"Sad day but you got lots of fans who are thinking positive no matter what," said another. "All the best bro, in anything that we do, we try our best not to get caught."
In 2013, after Warner's victory in the by-election in Chaguanas West, where he pays for local community centres and roads with his own money, I saw the zealous devotion with my own eyes. There are many in his heartland who would still vote for him to be prime minister of the country. As recently as yesterday (Sunday 31 May) the Trinidad Guardian published a poll from a marginal constituency in which more people said they would elect Warner as PM than the incumbent, Kamla Persad-Bissessar (below).
In her column on Sunday, Trinidad Express writer Sunity Maharaj described: "The national outpouring of grief at Warner's arrest and the celebratory reception at his cottage meeting. To [the rest of the world], he is a common criminal who broke the law to enrich himself. To us, he is what we would have been, if only we had his chance. We see not criminality but a man beating a power system. It is the oldest story of power and the powerless which takes no account of today's reality of independence, freedom and responsibility. We are still the enslaved, cheering on as the great house burns, oblivious to the fact that the great house going up in flames is really ours.
To many in his homeland, Warner is a Robin Hood figure taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In 1998 he secured a football centre of excellence for the country (the only one in the region). Costing $16m, it was christened the Joao Havelange Centre of Excellence after the FIFA president who gifted it. It later emerged that Warner himself was the owner of the centre and the ground, not CONCACAF.
Lasana Liburd, an investigative journalist and football writer from Trinidad who has written for UK newspapers including the Guardian, discovered that Warner had fiddled the football authorities and arranged the transfer of the centre's ownership into his own companies, CCAM and Company, and Renraw Investments, of which Warner and his wife Maureen are directors.
In 2007, Warner took out an $11m mortgage borrowed against the value of the Centre of Excellence with Lisle Austin, then president of Barbados FA and vice-president of CONCACAF. In the interim period, Warner had been claiming FIFA expenses for maintenance of the building.
In essence, Warner stole from his country and, according to Guyanese newspaper Stabroek News, he hid the stolen asset "in broad daylight."
Liburd told VICE Sports: "I think this is a bittersweet moment for us in Trinidad and Tobago. And I am not referring to regret of Jack Warner's continuing fall from grace or even the embarrassment of his misdeeds. I am mostly disappointed that Trinidad and Tobago never took decisive action against Warner ourselves. It is embarrassing that it took FIFA, then a CONCACAF Integrity Report and now a U.S Department of Justice investigation to make Warner account for the hundreds of millions that passed through his hands."
Liburd disagrees with Sancho's assessment of a positive outcome.
"Will this be a watershed moment for Caribbean football? I don't think so," he said. "There is no reform taking place or a eureka moment where the football fraternity woke up to the horrific effects of corruption. This is just a U.S investigation into a crooked citizen, Chuck Blazer, which spawned into something that has rocked CONCACAF. It is a massive, hard-hitting exercise but almost certainly a one-off. The FBI will not police CONCACAF or FIFA and I don't think we have learned our lessons yet."
He gives Warner his credit as a pioneer of T&T football, but claims the abuse of power outweighs any good that he did.
"Jack Warner is the most influential Caribbean sport official of all-time. He might have used that influence to help develop the region's football teams and lift the standards of our competitions and tournaments. The Caribbean has always been a reservoir for talent and you can look at the ancestry of so many players in the Premier League to prove my point, from John Barnes and Shaun Goater to Dwight Yorke, Shaka Hislop, Rio Ferdinand and Raheem Sterling. Instead, he allegedly abused that power to amass a personal fortune and, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed through his hands, Warner left the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) so cash strapped that it could not even hold an AGM."
Liburd concluded, "Warner was a cancer to Caribbean football and, in three decades, he has fashioned an army of officials in his image and likeness. It will take some time and no little effort before we can get our football moving in the right direction again."
As for Warner's possible punishment, it could be a long way off. Despite Trinidad's Attorney General allowing the FBI's arrest warrant to be executed, Warner is already a free man again, having left prison under cover of an ambulance after just one night in jail. And he shows no signs of fear. He knows that in lawless Trinidad with its legal loopholes his extradition to the U.S is by no means a certainty.
Mark Wilson, the Economist's Caribbean correspondent says, "It remains an open question whether even the American indictment can ensnare him. He forcefully maintains his innocence, and can fight his extradition all the way to the Privy Council in London, which remains Trinidad and Tobago's final court of appeal. Two local business figures, Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh, have successfully resisted extradition to America since 2005; they have spent a lot of money on lawyers, but remain free."
Warner, like Sepp Blatter, at times gives the impression of being indestructible. He claimed Blatter knew about the Bin Hamman cash that Warner handed out to his colleagues at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Port-of-Spain. With Blatter re-elected in the top job in world football, it seems the corrupt activities of other are unlikely to bring about his downfall, even if it has tarnished his reputation.
It may well be that Blatter's fate lies in the hands of Warner himself. For now, Warner is defending Blatter.
"As black as you all have painted Blatter, he's still the FIFA President for another four years," Warner told reporters outside Parliament after making bail. "What are you going to say for the next four years? He's a crook? He's a thief? He's this and that? The voice of the people spoke today in Zurich."
But how long he's willing to keep up the charade is debatable. Never shy of playing the snitch, Warner has proven in the past he will say anything to avoid taking the blame himself.