After a seismic week for FIFA headlined by the U.S. Department of Justice’s 47-count indictment against 14 soccer officials, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said from Zurich on Thursday that he thinks we could see one more stunning development in Friday’s FIFA presidential election: That Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the underdog challenger who is being supported by U.S. Soccer, could topple Sepp Blatter and end his 17-year reign atop FIFA.
That possibility raises plenty of eyebrows, including mine, not least because Blatter appears from the outside to have the support he needs among the world’s 209 national federations. Most of those organizations are headed by men who don’t appear to want anything in FIFA to change.
So does the U.S.-educated Prince Ali have a chance?
“The answer is yes,” Gulati, who’s also a member of FIFA’s executive committee, argued in a teleconference with U.S. soccer writers. “It’s going to be an interesting election tomorrow. What’s happening on the ground here is certainly very different than what may be viewed from outside. However, it’s an election. It’s a secret ballot … It’s impossible to know for sure. But the answer is yes. I think tomorrow will be a very competitive election.”
Maybe. We’ll see. At the very least, Gulati and U.S. Soccer should be lauded for publicly taking on Blatter and the culture of corruption that has been part and parcel of FIFA under his watch. It was embarrassing to see the U.S. support Blatter in previous FIFA elections. And it was refreshing to hear Gulati—who didn’t have to reveal his choice in Friday’s secret-ballot vote—say he’s willing to sacrifice hosting a future World Cup in the U.S. by going against Blatter this week.
“Would we like to host a future World Cup? The answer is of course yes,” said Gulati. “But for me and for U.S. Soccer, especially at this time but at any time, having CONCACAF and FIFA governed and managed with integrity is far more important than hosting a World Cup or any other event. That’s our focus right now.”
To hear Gulati, he didn’t care about any challengers’ promises of giving CONCACAF more World Cup berths or financial assistance from FIFA. All he cared about was improving the governance of FIFA, which the U.S. Department of Justice has called rotten to its core.
“The only thing I wanted to talk about was governance,” Gulati said of his meetings with Blatter’s three challengers, from whom only Prince Ali will stand on Friday. “Because all of those things fall from governance. If you have good governance and good leadership, you make good decisions. Those good decisions will lead to the right outcomes, whether it’s where World Cups are played or how many teams are in World Cups or anything else. For us, this is a vote for good governance.”
Gulati said he had gotten to know Prince Ali closely while working with him in recent years on the FIFA Executive Committee, and he admired the challenger’s active support of reform at FIFA, as well as his work on increasing the rights of women’s soccer players in the Middle East.
In the short term, Gulati argued that Friday’s election offered a tremendous chance to change FIFA from within by ousting Blatter from power, however unrealistic that chance might seem to many. But the election is hardly the biggest story of the week. That would be the massive charges of corruption and racketeering leveled by U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch against FIFA officials on Wednesday.
I asked Gulati if he thought the investigation by the highest levels of the U.S. government—and Lynch’s promise that this was only the start of their task, not the end—would be looked back on as the moment that FIFA truly began to reform and change for the better.
“Obviously, there’s some very bad behavior that’s outlined in the indictment, and it does make clear that there are a number of other people that are named as co-conspirators. Yesterday’s press conference made clear that many more avenues that are being investigated. So we’ll see now what the reaction is to those issues, both at the CONCACAF level and the FIFA level. I certainly hope that the changes in governance which are required for behavior to be better …. No organization works purely on good behavior. You need good governance and rules, and obviously you need good people to follow those rules.”
“Hopefully we’ll get further along in those two. It shouldn’t have taken something like this to lead the way to that. There have been enough issues in the past. It shouldn’t have taken the seismic event of yesterday.”
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Gulati discussed other topics as well. He said the CONCACAF Gold Cup would go on as scheduled in July in the U.S. despite CONCACAF having to scramble new leadership together with president Jeffrey Webb (arrested) and general secretary Enrique Sanz (given a leave of absence) out of the picture. He said it was premature to say anything about next year’s Copa América Centenario in the U.S., which is in doubt after the DOJ alleged that more than $100 million in bribes have been tied to the tournament’s marketing sponsors.
And he made it clear that the last 36 hours at FIFA have been unlike anything he’s ever experienced. “Shocking, very disappointed,” was how he described his reaction to the arrests on Wednesday. “If the allegations are proven, then it’s beyond description.”
Gulati, a popular Columbia economics lecturer, has always been seen as a smart individual with what those of us in soccer would call a “high workrate.” But he’s starting to be seen as something else: A leader, one who isn’t afraid to take on powerful figures like Blatter and explain succinctly—and most important, publicly—why he’s doing it.
Four years ago, Gulati could have joined England in abstaining in the FIFA election instead of voting for the only candidate, Blatter. Gulati wasn’t a leader then. But he is now. Even if his candidate doesn’t win on Friday—and I have a hard time seeing Prince Ali toppling Blatter—I have a better feeling about the U.S.’s role in cleaning up world soccer than ever before.
This week, at least, you can thank Loretta Lynch and Sunil Gulati for that. And to borrow the rhetorical device Gulati loves so much to use:
Is that important? The answer is yes. Yes, it is.