SALT LAKE CITY — It has been nearly two years since I sat down for a good soccer politics discussion with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. It seemed like a good time to catch up after his recent election to the prestigious FIFA Executive Committee, the top board in global soccer.
Granted, there has also been a purge of many FIFA ExCo members in the last two years due to improper behavior by other global soccer leaders. Gulati has until recently served on FIFA's Independent Governance Committee, which has sought to reform an organization whose reputation has been hovering near an all-time low. He joined me for a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday, the highlight of which for me might have been this quote: "Frankly, I'm not sure what world you live in. I live in the real world."
Admittedly, that made me laugh. The U.S.'s master of realpolitik addressed a number of topics, including the U.S. men's team's performance in World Cup qualifying and whether U.S. Soccer will go back to Seattle for qualifiers in the future. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: Congratulations on your FIFA ExCo position. I've been asked by readers: What does this mean for the interests of U.S. Soccer? And if the U.S. didn't get World Cup 2022, what can the country actually get from FIFA at this point?
Gulati: Some people would like us to host every World Cup. That's not going to happen. So it's not the only thing FIFA does. They award other tournaments: youth tournaments, women's tournaments and so on. What does [the FIFA ExCo spot] mean? It's a seat at the table of essentially the board of directors of the body that governs soccer throughout the world. So whether it's discussions about the long-term growth of the game or changes to the laws of the game, which eventually go to the IFAB, or the use of funds from the World Cup and how those are divvied up, development funds, all those things. It's a normal board of directors, so having a voice there is certainly positive.
SI.com: Does the FIFA ExCo become something close to a full-time job for you?
Gulati: No. It all depends how many committees you're on and how much time you spend. In my case, it won't require me giving up what I do at Columbia or what I do for U.S. Soccer.
SI.com: You're resigning from FIFA's Independent Governance Committee due to your new spot on the ExCo. Which other FIFA committees are you on right now?
Gulati: I don't know yet. That's to be determined, which will happen in the next month or two.
SI.com: Does the presence of you and other Americans on FIFA committees reflect U.S. Soccer's support of Sepp Blatter for FIFA president?
Gulati: No. We have far fewer members [on committees] than we did two years ago.
SI.com: You just got back from the FIFA congress in Mauritius. How would you grade the FIFA reform process and what it's accomplished so far?
Gulati: Well, since what I do for a living is grade students, I'd say incomplete. What's been done up to now, I think, is a long way toward addressing some of the issues, but I think more needs to be done. So setting up independent chambers on the ethics panel for adjudicating and investigating, that's a big plus. Setting up the external audit and compliance group under Domenico Scala is a great advance. And the people that are in charge of those three groups, from everything I've seen, read and witnessed and talked with them about, are highly qualified and highly professional. That's a big plus.
The rewriting of the ethics code is a big plus. It's pretty clear what's happened the last few years with seven, eight, nine people who've left the ExCo either by their own decision or by formal investigation or some combination of both. That doesn't happen if people are just saying let's forget about the past and move on. Some of those things happened a long time ago. Under the new code of ethics they can be investigated and disciplined for that. Those are all pluses.
There are any number of other things, in terms of the funding of programs, the audit and compliance area, the transparency of funding development projects, external bids within the general area of finance the whole bidding process has changed. I'm not talking about the World Cup bidding process, but the bidding process for contracts with FIFA for business.
The changes are incomplete in my view on the World Cup [host] decision-making. The only formal decision to be made so far is the final decision will be made by 209 countries.
SI.com: The FIFA Independent Governance Committee you've been on recommended term limits for ExCo members. Do you think that makes sense?
Gulati: Yeah. The IGC recommended some limits on mandate, whether it's by age or by term limits. Clearly if it's an age limit it's not a term limit per se, right? Because if you're on at 30 you're limited to, say, 40 years. There wasn't agreement within the IGC or virtually anywhere else I've seen on what form those limits should take and then what the specific rules should be. Should it be age or specific numbers of terms? I've had mixed feelings about term limits in the past.
In my view, if FIFA's going to have term limits it shouldn't just apply to the president. It should apply more broadly. I certainly agree if the president of FIFA should be subject to term limits, the ExCo should be subject to term limits.
SI.com: The presidency of U.S. Soccer currently does not have term limits. Should it?
Gulati: Maybe. We've had them once in the last 30 years. We were foolish enough to have them apply to the person who in my view is the best president we've ever had, Alan Rothenberg.
SI.com: How did it change from Rothenberg having term limits in 1998 to having no term limits now?
Gulati: Alan came in 1990. We didn't have them at the time. They were implemented sometime in those eight years, then they were revoked in 1998 when Alan was leaving, but the revocation didn't apply to him.
SI.com: Do you plan on running for your third term as U.S. Soccer president next year?
Gulati: We'll see. There's plenty of time to make that decision for me personally and for the organization.
SI.com: The CONCACAF Integrity Report came out and there were some staggering examples of improper behavior by former leaders Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner in the report. You served on the CONCACAF Executive Committee during their time in power. Were you aware of their activities in that report?
Gulati: The answer is no.
SI.com: There was good journalism done — admittedly not enough by me, but by others — revealing improper behavior that ended up in that Integrity Report. Do you feel like you should have done more?
Gulati: There are two things. One can always say one should do more in certain situations. But secondly, and more importantly, in the midst of various legal proceedings, I'm not going to talk about this. I'm not involved in any legal proceedings, but I think it would be inappropriate to say very much about that given FIFA proceedings and other potential proceedings.
SI.com: Are we looking at FBI and IRS investigations into Blazer and Warner, as has been reported?
Gulati: Given various proceedings, I'm not going to comment on anything else here.
SI.com: You're unpaid in your position as U.S. Soccer president. You will be paid as a member of the FIFA Executive Committee. How much?
Gulati: Formally, I haven't been told that yet. I'm sure I'll find out in the weeks to come and I'll find out the rules and regulations about disclosure.
SI.com: Is there a specific FIFA policy that prohibits disclosure?
Gulati: I've asked that question and I don't know the answer to that. There are certain FIFA policies about confidentiality of information that you have a director that every company has. I don't know if this falls within that or not.
SI.com: Do you know how much Blatter receives in compensation?
SI.com: Should members of the FIFA ExCo know such a thing?
Gulati: I'm sure some members of the FIFA ExCo do. I don't. I know the chair of the audit and finance committee does. One of the changes that's come about is there will be an external review committee that will be involved in the setting of compensation for top officials, as many corporations have.
SI.com: Do you think it would be a good thing for this information to be disclosed publicly for everyone?
Gulati: Yes. I think non-profits should disclose the compensation level or the honorariums or whatever it is of their directors, as is the case in the United States. I also understand that that's not the case in most of the world, and I appreciate the fact different countries have different rules about it. In the U.S., the rules are quite clear and I think an organization like FIFA should disclose that. But I understand that in Switzerland and many countries around the world that's not the norm.
SI.com: U.S. Soccer voted for Blatter in the 2011 FIFA presidential election when he was the only nominated candidate. Are you still comfortable with the decision to do that?
Gulati: (exasperated look) There was one candidate. I think we've covered this before and frankly I'm not sure what world you live in. I live in the real world.
SI.com: (smiling) Moving on, Alexandra Wrage resigned from the IGC and had a very public critique of the IGC's work. Do you think her criticism was off the mark?
Gulati: I don't agree with Alexandra's comments. I think much was accomplished in the process and much still needs to be done. To the extent she believes other things still need to be done, that's fine. To the extent she believes the 18 months didn't accomplish anything, I think that's off the mark. Frankly, I think [her criticism] was unfair to the three people that are now in charge of the adjudication, investigation and audit/compliance [bodies], all of whom to me are highly qualified, highly independent and have done from what I've seen so far a commendable job on the issues.
SI.com: All right, let's talk briefly about the U.S. men's team. How are you feeling about World Cup qualifying right now?
Gulati: Obviously, we're feeling very good about the last few results, especially the performance against Panama. But let's hope we can have that same conversation tomorrow.
SI.com: Are you seeing some of the things on the field that Jurgen Klinsmann promised when he took over?
Gulati: I don't know if we had promises, but we talked about a lot of the things Jurgen wanted to see on the field. Certainly there have been ups and downs in the process. This part of the process is about results, and when you get good results and a really good performance like we had against Panama and a good result in Jamaica and a good performance against Germany, those are all positives in building the sort of path he wanted to build.
So the answer is yes. But there will still be some bumps in this, whether it's in qualifying or beyond qualifying. We're not going to get performances every week or game where we look like the dominant team. We're not at that level yet. We're not Spain and we're not going to dominate teams with 70 percent possession. That's just not where we are on the field yet.
SI.com: How do you feel about the decision to play the Panama qualifier in Seattle, both from a fan perspective and a temporary-grass perspective?
Gulati: Well, we had players describe it as the best atmosphere they've ever played in in the United States. And we had our best performance of qualifying in maybe two years. So I feel pretty good about it.
SI.com: Would you go back to Seattle and do it again?
Gulati: Absolutely. And it's a decision that wasn't made lightly. We had a discussion with some of the senior players after the game in France about this very issue. They all had played on fields laid on top of artificial surfaces. They said, "Look, it's not ideal, but if it means being able to go to Seattle or Portland, we should do that." Then we talked about it, looked at how long the grass could be, talked about it with Jurgen, the pros and cons, and came to the final decision. It wasn't an easy one. But the results obviously were very good. The field actually held up quite well, not as well as a field like [Salt Lake] will. We know that. But we knew that going in. It wasn't a surprise when we got to Seattle and said, wow, the field is going to be like this. We knew that going in.