U.S. rests hopes on tireless Gulati
ZURICH -- The U.S. gave its formal bid presentation to host World Cup '22 here on Wednesday, and a list of bold-faced names spoke on the Americans' behalf, including former President Bill Clinton, the actor Morgan Freeman, President Obama (on videotape) and star player Landon Donovan.
But the least recognizable speaker was the man who has done more to spearhead the U.S.'s drive for World Cup '22 than anyone else: A 51-year-old Columbia University economics professor who was born in Allahabad, India and emigrated to the U.S. at age five. Make no mistake, if the U.S. wins the right to host WC22 on Thursday, it would be the defining career achievement of Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president and chief of the World Cup '22 bid.
"Sunil has been working his whole life to get to this moment," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, who's part of the U.S. bid team here.
Sometimes it seems as though Gulati has packed a lifetime of events into his bid efforts alone over the past 18 months. "It's an election," he says of Thursday's FIFA decision, "and you never know how people are going to vote." If those voters don't choose the U.S. this week, he feels, it won't be for a lack of trying. Of the 22 voters from the FIFA Executive Committee, Gulati has personally visited 20 of them to make the U.S.'s case on their home turf -- in countries as disparate as Ivory Coast, Thailand and Paraguay.
Gulati now has "millions" of frequent-flier miles, he says, and he's allowed by the government to use two passports, so that one can be sent for visas while he uses the other to travel. At one point this year, he visited ExCo voters in Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok in a whirlwind 48-hour period. When I sat down with Gulati recently in his university office in New York City, he said he'd traveled in the previous month to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Yaounde, Moscow, London, Zürich and Geneva.
Along the way he has continued selling the benefits of the U.S. bid.
"We've got an extraordinary gift of infrastructure and stadiums that has very little to do with soccer and everything to do with American football and the sort of country the U.S. is in terms of highways and hotels and communications," Gulati says. "I think what we've done in the last year is explain to people, especially in the FIFA Executive Committee, how far the sport has come since the 1994 World Cup. The game matters in the United States.
"The second half of that message, which is equally important, is that we're not there yet. There's a legacy to be developed here. If we were a very mature country in soccer, what else could FIFA do? The story we tell is that we're just finishing the first half of this long plan, and the legacy that would be left by another World Cup is something that FIFA is inspired by."
At the same time, Gulati has bolstered the relationship between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the biggest fútbol bigwig of all, FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Last year Gulati helped arrange a private meeting in the White House's Oval Office between Blatter, President Obama and powerful FIFA ExCo member Jack Warner. Blatter also met at the World Cup in South Africa with Clinton, and it's a sign of Blatter's outsized status that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden went to visit Blatter at his hotel in Johannesburg, not the other way around.
How good is the relationship between Blatter and U.S. Soccer under Gulati? "It's probably the best that it's been in the last 20 years as far as leadership is concerned," says Chuck Blazer, the lone American on the FIFA Executive Committee and a power player in Thursday's vote. "[Former U.S. Soccer president] Alan Rothenberg had a working relationship with FIFA at the time we had the World Cup in '94 and was almost brought into the picture by FIFA after Werner Fricker had actually gotten the World Cup to the States. Following Alan's terms, Dr. Bob [Contiguglia] came in and there wasn't much of a relationship during those years with FIFA as far as the head of the federation. After Sunil's entry to the leadership role at that point, it became a far better working relationship than we've ever had."
Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF, goes back a long way with Gulati. The two men met when Gulati was just 20 years old and heading the Connecticut Olympic Development Program. Blazer had the same position in New York State, and they organized tournaments involving each other's teams.
"Sunil's good at everything he does," Blazer says. "He's a great teacher, a guy who has students lined up to get into his classes in Columbia. When it came to understanding and working in the pro end of the game he was great, and it was the same with the amateur and youth ends of the game."
Gulati's path has taken countless twists and turns since he moved with his family to Storrs, Conn., as a child and fell for the Beautiful Game. The University of Connecticut was becoming a college powerhouse under coach Joe Morrone, and Gulati started playing rec-league soccer as a seven-year-old with Morrone's kids. In his mid-teens he got involved in coaching and then administration at the ODP level. When Blazer asked him to run a youth national-team camp on short notice, Gulati delivered. "I had to buy balls at K-Mart on a Sunday morning," he recalls of what would charitably be called the blue-collar days of U.S. Soccer.
Soon afterward, Gulati met with Fricker, then the USSF president. "I said your national team program is a mess," Gulati remembers. "He said, 'Tell me about it, but don't send me a 17-page memo.' So I sent him a 17-page memo and told him everything I thought was wrong with the program. Eventually he said come and do something about it."
After earning a graduate economics degree at Columbia and working for the World Bank, Gulati was involved behind the scenes with the U.S.'s World Cup team in 1990 and helped organize World Cup '94. He was widely known as the brains behind the start of Major League Soccer, the guy who made the big player signings and would eventually become the deputy commissioner before leaving in 1999.
While mastering elections might seem a prerequisite to become U.S. Soccer president, it didn't always go well for Gulati at first. He supported Fricker in the 1990 election that he lost to Rothenberg, and Gulati himself suffered a narrow, stunning loss for the USSF Executive VP post in 1998 to an unknown named John Motta.
Gulati later did win the same post and began assembling the support needed to win the U.S. Soccer presidency in 2006. So how did he go from election loser to election king?
"A few things happened," he says. "I think I grew up a little bit, both in general terms as we all do and in terms of what elections are like. I guess what I realized was I like selling ideas. That's what I've done for a long time. Selling the idea of having our national team in residency in order to do something in the '94 World Cup. Selling the idea that we have to pay our women's national team players. Whatever it might be. I'm less comfortable selling myself. I was class president in high school, so I had some of it back then, but then it's not about the idea, it's about you."
Clearly Gulati has applied some of his lessons about elections to the current one for the World Cup '22 bid. "If you do the electoral math, you want to know where California and Texas and Ohio and Florida and New York are," he says. It explains his odyssey around the world over the past 18 months visiting World Cup voters. It explains why Gulati, Clinton and the rest of the U.S. bid members could be seen in the wee hours Wednesday morning wooing voters one last time at the ritzy Baur du Lac hotel here.
Gulati has some distinctive traits. He likes to ask and answer his own questions in everyday interactions. ("Are we going to have our own Messi by next year? The answer is no.") And he keeps a firm policy of answering all the e-mails that he receives at his publicly available address, even the ones from angry U.S. soccer fans.
Last spring, I attended Gulati's last lecture of the semester in his introductory economics class at Columbia. It was a revealing scene. The lecture hall was packed nearly 200 strong. As he explained that day, he only blends his soccer and university lives in his last lecture, a sort of personal statement combined with Socratic questions of his students. It featured a slide show of young poor kids in Mexico City, kids who begged outside World Cup stadiums in 1986, kids whom he'd give tickets when he had dozens of extra ducats while working for NBC. But he also interspersed pictures of his own two children, who themselves are half-Mexican. (Gulati's wife, Marcela, is from Mexico.) They didn't look much different than the poor Mexican kids.
And that was the point, he added. Athletes are lauded for their tolerance of pain, he explained to the class. But whether his Columbia students ended up being Goldman-Sachs CEOs or politicians or ambassadors, "intolerance of pain in others seems like a pretty good lesson to guide us," he concluded, certain economic theories be damned.
What followed would best be described as a loud and lengthy ovation.
He'd sold an idea. He'd sold himself.
On Thursday in Zürich, on a momentous day for soccer in America, we'll find out if he's done it again.