A narrative has emerged from the recent FIFA scandal that while corruption is rife around the sport, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and Major League Soccer (MLS) are somehow immune to this disease. Never mind that a large portion of the alleged crimes related to the FIFA scandal happened on American soil and involved multiple figures close to the USSF. And never mind that the conception of Copa America Centenario that the United States is hosting this summer was directly related to the scandal.
For years, the majority of soccer writers in the United States have found making deep-seeded critiques of the governing entities of the game in this country difficult. Whether it is the need to maintain access to the powerful in the sport or a patriotic gesture of trying to promote American soccer interests unabashedly, the critiques of the conduct of US Soccer have long been absent in many publications. Many of these same writers ignored the US Senate hearing on July 15, 2015 where US Soccer Secretary General Dan Flynn provided no assurances or answers to questions related to the FIFA scandal and the role of the US in it. Mocking the Senators lack of knowledge about the sport became a cottage industry on Twitter among soccer writers rather than addressing the lack of detail and transparency provided by the USSF.
Behind this backdrop, we have a pivotal FIFA Presidential election this week. The United States, instead of publicly holding candidates accountable and wanting to create a culture of reform, has maintained a radio silence on the election. This continues a pattern established by the disgraced Chuck Blazer, long the United States member of the FIFA Executive Committee, to stay silent and play backroom politics around FIFA elections. In many ways, Blazer’s ability to serve as a rainmaker for votes allowed the USSF and MLS autonomy within FIFA to do whatever they wanted without consequence. This includes the failure of MLS and other US pro leagues to play on the Fall-Spring calendar, to pick and choose whether to break for international tournaments and not to put in place a unified national structure of pro leagues. Simply put, the political capital accumulated by Blazer as a rainmaker allowed the US game to operate semi-autonomously of the international norms in the corrupt environment FIFA President Sepp Blatter and allies like Blazer maintained.
Protected by FIFA’s unwillingness to engage in a transparent process where voting for the President is made public, the USSF can still engage in the post-Blazer era of the kind of sleazy backroom politicking that has ensured previous success. Despite being a member of the FIFA Executive Committee, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati will be handing his ballot to MLS Commissioner Don Garber to cast the USSF’s vote for FIFA President per a report in The New York Times. Gulati will be present in Zurich along with Garber and several other USSF board members.
Transparency is not the strength of the USSF or MLS. Operating in an environment where many journalists and writers who cover the sport see protecting the USSF and MLS as a “cause,” the vigilance in coverage toward potential domestic corruption in the game is nowhere near the levels they are in western Europe. It can be surmised that if the illegal activities of Traffic Sports and alleged illegalities of CONCACAF had taken place on British soil, the media would have nailed the offending parties long before the Department of Justice swooped in and took everyone by surprise in May 2015.
No pressure of substantial note has been exerted yet on Gulati or Garber to publicly disclose which way they are headed with this vote. The simple reason might be that remembering Blazer’s influence and the protection it afforded the United States from FIFA, those who see American Soccer as a “cause” will want to protect the USSF from any potential damage that comes from this election. Others simply want to use these FIFA moments to point out corruption in other countries and to yet again bemoan the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar while ignoring what the USSF is up to.
As this week progresses and the election in Zurich occurs, it will be most fascinating to see how US Soccer conducts itself in front of the media assembled from all around the world. They won’t get the free ride that the US soccer media affords them.
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