Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation did something bold, admirable and more than a little bit risky: It broke from a long tradition of playing it safe in FIFA politics and took a public stand against FIFA president Sepp Blatter by nominating Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein in the FIFA presidential election that will take place in May.
The decision by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was the right thing to do—Prince Ali, a FIFA vice president, is a reformer; Blatter, the king of patronage sports politics, is clearly not—but it’s a move that could also cost the U.S. one of Gulati’s crown jewels: The hosting rights for World Cup 2026.
What are the forces in play here? Let’s break it down:
Q: Why is it surprising that U.S. Soccer would take on Blatter?
A: Well, the USSF has voted for Blatter in all four of his FIFA campaigns, starting in 1998 and continuing through 2002, ‘07 and ‘11. Those votes weren’t necessarily because Blatter was a terrific leader. After all, he wouldn’t have become FIFA president in the first place without the support and vote-wrangling of some of the dirtiest figures in global sports, guys like Jack Warner and Mohamed Bin Hammam (who have since been banned from FIFA).
But U.S. Soccer isn’t a global power in FIFA, and in the past Gulati has followed a game-theory strategy of realpolitik, supporting Blatter on the idea he was going to win anyway and could help deliver the U.S. World Cup hosting rights—and that not supporting him could bring negative repercussions to U.S. Soccer. Granted, Blatter has been the only candidate in the last two FIFA elections (nice democracy, guys), but Gulati could have joined England and made a statement against Blatter by abstaining in 2011. Instead the U.S. voted for Blatter again.
Q: So what’s changed? Why would the U.S. join England this year as one of the six nations to nominate Prince Ali against Blatter?
A: Blatter is still the heavy favorite to win, but this time he actually has some reform-minded challengers who got the necessary nominations: Prince Ali, Dutch FA president Michael van Praag and former Portuguese superstar Luís Figo. That in itself suggests the times are changing.
These days U.S. Soccer also has more power in FIFA. Unlike four years ago, the American on the powerful FIFA executive committee is Gulati, not Chuck Blazer (who was part of the problem at FIFA and got forced out for his shadiness over the years).
In recent years, Gulati has found his voice as a reformer inside FIFA, serving on its governance reform committee and joining forces with fellow ExCo members like Prince Ali and Australia’s Moya Dodd.
FIFA has a notoriously entrenched culture of gift-giving and five-star, all-expenses-paid boondoggles. But it’s no coincidence that Gulati, Dodd and Prince Ali were the only members of the 28-member FIFA executive committee, including Blatter, who returned on their own a $26,000 watch that was part of a gift bag at last year’s World Cup. (FIFA rules demand that gifts of such value be returned.)
Q: But why did the U.S. nominate Prince Ali? Why not Figo or Van Praag?
A: Gulati is a personal friend of Prince Ali, who was educated at U.S. schools, including Princeton, and they have worked closely together inside FIFA. What’s more, Prince Ali has genuine credentials, having run the Jordanian federation since 1999 and having served as a FIFA VP since 2011. He has been the top proponent of women’s soccer in the Middle East, leading the campaign to lift the ban on female Islamic players wearing headscarves in competition.
Prince Ali has been one of the few FIFA administrators willing to challenge Blatter publicly. He recently promised his stewardship of FIFA would bring the focus “away from administrative controversy and back to sport.”
Figo’s candidacy didn’t emerge until the last second before nominations were due, and Van Praag already had the support of many European federations (as well as UEFA president Michel Platini).
For his part, Prince Ali needed the help getting at least five nominations: Most of the countries in his Asian confederation are supporting Blatter.
Keep in mind, just because the U.S. nominated Prince Ali doesn’t mean it has to vote for him on the election’s secret ballot. In the election, each of the world’s federations has one vote. In the most likely scenario, whichever Blatter challenger has the most votes in his pocket would stay in the election, while the other two would bow out and endorse that challenger. The U.S. likely thinks that Prince Ali has the best chance of getting the votes needed outside of Europe to beat Blatter.
That said, Blatter remains the favorite and currently has support from most or all of of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF, South America and Oceania.
Q: Wait, why is Blatter so popular if most of the world’s soccer fans can’t stand him?
A: Unfortunately, the world’s fans don’t vote for FIFA president. The voters are the presidents of the world’s national soccer federations.
Most of them don’t care about allegations of FIFA corruption, and the majority have little chance of even making the World Cup.
What they do care about is receiving money from Blatter’s FIFA for soccer development programs in their countries. Under Blatter, FIFA has made big profits from the World Cup—including a $2 billion profit from Brazil 2014—and so the money keeps flowing to the voters.
(One topic for a future column: If a candidate really wanted to win over the voters, I’d argue that FIFA could make even more money than it currently does by starting a global satellite FIFA TV channel, bundling the international rights and sponsorships for World Cup qualifiers and selling those the way UEFA now does with its Euro 2016 qualifiers. That’s how you beat Blatter.)
Q: So if Blatter wins as expected, wouldn’t supporting Prince Ali against Blatter hurt the U.S. in its bid for World Cup 2026?
A: Potentially, and this is where the U.S.’s support of Prince Ali gets really interesting. Prince Ali himself recently talked about the culture of retribution under Blatter in which countries fear being punished for doing anything against him.
The rules and procedures for the bidding to host World Cup 2026 are expected to be laid out next month by the FIFA executive committee. The vote for that World Cup host is expected to take place in 2017, which is during the next FIFA presidential term.
Could Blatter work to influence the vote away from a country that didn’t support him, like the U.S.? You’d better believe it.
Granted, Blatter isn’t all-powerful when it comes to influencing World Cup votes. The U.S. had his support in 2010 against Qatar in the vote for World Cup ’22, but Qatar ended up winning anyway. It remains to be seen how much influence Blatter would have on the World Cup ’26 vote, which will be done differently than before, with all of the world’s federations voting instead of just the FIFA executive committee.
In fact, Blatter could make life difficult for the U.S. on other fronts. FIFA could come after MLS for not having a fall-to-spring calendar, or for going beyond 20 teams. It could pursue Phil Anschutz for being an owner of more than one MLS team (he owns the LA Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo). It could put the heat on MLS for its unilateral options in player contracts or for being outside the norm of the FIFA transfer system on training compensation.
There are some things that FIFA has looked the other way on with MLS in the interest of growing the sport here that may come under increasing scrutiny if Blatter decides to turn the screw.
But there’s something else that comes with Gulati’s decision to nominate Prince Ali against Blatter. It’s something that has no price tag, and it involves being on the right side of history if FIFA can become an organization with real credibility.
It’s called leadership. And if taking on Sepp Blatter means the U.S. doesn’t host World Cup ’26, then so be it.