On April 19th, 2013, Sunil Gulati – at least in theory – became one of the most powerful men in soccer.
No one remembers the razor-thin margin of his victory – an 18-17 vote victory over Mexican Federation President Justino Compean elected U.S Soccer President Gulati to FIFA’s Executive Committee, football’s foremost ruling body.
Gulati, who has been President of U.S Soccer since March 2006, and overseen incredible growth in the American domestic game, as well as unprecedented success for the U.S men’s and women’s national teams, jumped into the FIFA fray at a crucial time.
The outcry over the selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, and the ramifications of that allegedly corrupt decision were beginning to explode into bribery charges against powerful FIFA bosses, and real questions about the direction of the reviled organization.
No real change happened then, but now, the stakes are being raised.
Important corporate sponsors like Emirates, Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Castrol, and Continental Tires have all cut ties with FIFA, and for the first time, the organization has financial incentive to reform.
Also, crucially, the irretrievably sexist, delusional 78-year-old Sepp Blatter is seeking a fifth term as FIFA President, and despite the fact that Blatter has run FIFA’s reputation into the ground over his first four terms, he’s likely to win.
It’s simple. Money.
There are financial considerations and subsidies that go to all footballing nations, but, the feeling is, much more so to the countries that stand with Blatter.
Confederations like to vote together, and in the name in unity, Africa, Asia, and Oceania have all voted to support Blatter.
Blatter has led a FIFA that has given more attention and contributions to smaller footballing nations outside of Europe and South America, and thus, those smaller footballing countries in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, are partially or completely dependent on FIFA handouts.
Some of those countries are fighting for survival, not worrying about reform.
South America’s ten countries are also expected to vote with Blatter.
It could be a clean sweep, if Europe was on board too. However, Michel Platini, head of UEFA, fell out with Blatter years ago. Europe is the only federation that has the financial muscle to risk challenging Blatter, and its leading countries have been most aggrieved in recent years.
Many European nations, at Platini’s direction, are expected to back a challenger: Portugal legend Luis Figo, former Dutch President Michael van Praag, and Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein are the three candidates that have passed the first hurdle to formally enter the race.
It’s going to be an uphill fight to unseat Blatter, but the battle lines are being drawn. This should be the most serious FIFA Presidential race in some two decades.
So where does this leave Gulati and the U.S?
It’s not totally clear.
Historically, CONCACAF has been loyal Blatter country. The smaller Caribbean and Central American nations are not well set up to support an insurgency. Jeffrey Webb, the President of the federation, has also been cozy with the current regime.
Even if the U.S itself votes against Blatter, it will need to accrue some federation-wide support to do any real good.
In 2011, when Blatter ended up running unopposed after a corruption scandal took down his only competitor, Mohammad Bin Hammam, the U.S bit the bullet and voted for Blatter too.
If there’s one thing that’s for sure, there are few moral stands in FIFA. Abstaining from voting, as England did, wouldn’t have done the U.S any good.
But things have changed since 2011. The U.S is deeply bitter about the 2022 World Cup bid process that saw Qatar selected over the American bid – to the point that Gulati himself has said that the U.S will not bid again for the World Cup until the bidding process is overhauled.
And now, there’s a real challenger. The charismatic, well-connected, and well-liked Figo, along with the Prince Ali, both could topple Blatter with a little momentum and a few countries around the world taking a risk.
In his two years on the Executive Committee, Gulati has stayed on the straight and narrow.
When all 25 FIFA ExCo members were illegally gifted watches worth some $25,000, Gulati was one of only three members to refuse the gift – Prince Ali, for the record, was one of the others.
Gulati has talked publicly about wanting reform at FIFA. But in reality, he’s made little real impact.
Standing against Blatter would be the first step. The long-shot hope of defeating Blatter is with a number of large, influential countries gathering behind one of the other candidates right before the election. The U.S has to be involved in that process.
Gulati is gaining more and more power – he’s talented, and appears to be in the international soccer game for the long haul.
This is a fight worth having. Blatter has made it increasingly hard to challenge him, changing the qualifications for candidates so no true FIFA outsiders can run.
Blatter is asking for a fifth term – despite the fact that he said he wouldn’t run for a fifth term after being elected to his fourth. He covered up his own investigation into the bidding process for the next two World Cups and crushed any potential political rivals.
Blatter has been dismissive at best and degrading at worst to the women’s game, and for that matter, women in general. His leadership has been nothing short of disastrous. He deserves to be defeated.
Casting his lot against Blatter would require a type of boldness and focus Gulati has only ever shown in pursuing Jurgen Klinsmann to coach his men’s national team, but it’s the next step for him on the world stage. After two years, Gulati has established himself enough to make an impact.
The U.S doesn’t need FIFA’s money. They’re not, if 2022 is any indications, getting any favors from FIFA either. Major reform is the US’ interests. Gulati needs to take a stand. If he doesn’t, what is he really in power to do?
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