With the world’s attention on Canada and the Women’s World Cup, discussion of the FIFA scandal has begun to fade in the United States. This could not have come at a better time for the USSF and the professional leagues in the United States. As my colleague Simon Evans discussed late last week, the silence from some quarters in the American soccer community has been deafening. But fundamental questions must be asked of authorities in the United States.
The United States is not in the same position as England or other countries particularly from UEFA that have been outside the FIFA circle of power through the years. Sunil Gulati’s belated endorsement of Prince Ali for FIFA President ten days ago might have positioned the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) on the side of reformers, but reality is the US has been situated as a leading FIFA nation with lots of influence within the global soccer community for the better part of two decades.
That is why it’s disappointing but not surprising that large elements of the FIFA scandal took place on American soil and that it was US law enforcement authorities that blew open the scandal. Chuck Blazer, a former FIFA Executive Committee member who is the central figure in the scandal, spent years as a confidante of Sepp Blatter while maintaining close relationships with Gulati, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and just about everyone else of stature in the sport. His relationship via CONCACAF to Traffic Sports, the driving force behind the creation of the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL), has been well-documented through the DOJ’s indictments.
One significant issue has to be the level of alleged corruption around the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments held in the United States between 1996 and 2003 as well the 2013 and 2015 events. In each of those cases Traffic Sports, be it through a Miami-based company it part owned INTERFOREVER Sports or acting on its own, was involved in alleged misconduct around the tournament. But where was the USSF while this was going on, with a major continental competition being held on American soil?
In the mid 2000’s, NBC Sports had secured the English-language TV rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. But the rights in fact ended up being given to ESPN and Univision. Allegedly Blazer played a key role in urging FIFA to reverse its decision with regards to the TV rights in the American market. If this is true, MLS and ESPN were direct beneficiaries of Blazer’s access to FIFA’s power hierarchy.
Meanwhile, each professional league sanctioned in the United States by the USSF has a peculiar ownership arrangement that does not match international norms. Major League Soccer’s single-entity structure has been widely critiqued and criticized on both sides of the Atlantic. While MLS’ success as a league cannot be questioned, the way competition and ownership is structured does appear at first glance to fall foul of FIFA’s own statutes.
But MLS is not the only league based in the United States with a bizarre arrangement. NASL has allowed a sports marketing company, Traffic Sports, to essentially fund the league in return for maintaining the majority of Class B ownership stock and a veto power over certain matters. The third-tier USL is owned by an outside corporation, NuRock, that sells franchises to club owners. The league’s finances are autonomous of the participating clubs.
While it can be strongly argued that the United States sports market is different than the rest of the world and thus exceptions must be made for the US’ benefit in the structuring of professional leagues, one must wonder if the influence Blazer accumulated through the years with FIFA created a situation where the world governing body turned a blind eye to the way leagues in the US were organized.
Based on the sheer volume of alleged corruption that took place on American soil, US Soccer needs to own up to what it knew and when it knew it. Questions need to be asked by the media directly to US Soccer and to each professional league in the country. Until we get clarification from the powers that be, a dark cloud will continue to sit over the beautiful game in this country.
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