USA's Sunil Gulati plays pivotal role in FIFA election outcome

The U.S. Soccer president had an active role in ensuring Gianni Infantino won Friday's FIFA election.
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ZURICH — In the end, after the first two-round FIFA presidential election since 1974; after Switzerland’s Gianni Infantino outmaneuvered Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman for the most powerful job in sports; after the U.S. flexed its newfound global power and increased its chances of hosting World Cup 2026; and after FIFA’s 207 nations passed a reforms package (featuring term limits and gender inclusion) that should help clean up what had become a toxic, criminalized sport, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati exhaled more deeply than he had in a long, long time.

“This is a good day for the sport,” said a beaming Gulati, who’s also on the FIFA Executive Committee (soon to be renamed the FIFA Council). “The reforms got passed this morning. We have a candidate [Infantino] that we’re supportive of, that we get along very well with, that understands the nuances of the American market. I think it’s a little early to talk about [World Cup] 2026, but you can rest assured that it got brought up in some of the discussions we’ve had over the last couple of days.”

For many years, as he made his way through the thicket of world soccer politics, Gulati aimed high but often missed out on his biggest targets. In 1998, he suffered a stunning loss for the U.S. Soccer Executive VP post to an unknown Dunkin Donuts owner named John Motta. He struck out trying to land Jurgen Klinsmann as a player for Major League Soccer in ’98 (when Gulati was MLS’s deputy commissioner) and then again as a coach for the U.S. national team in 2006 after Gulati had rallied to become U.S. Soccer president earlier that year (He did, eventually, land Klinsmann as his manager in 2011).

Unlikely candidate to co-favorite: Gianni Infantino's FIFA campaign

The biggest loss of all for Gulati came on December 2, 2010, when Qatar shocked the world by beating out his U.S. bid to host World Cup 2022. On that day, he was stabbed in the back by UEFA president Michel Platini, who switched his vote from the U.S. to Qatar at the request of the French government and took a couple European voters with him.

These days, though, as FIFA tries to wade out of the muck and enter the 21st century, Gulati appears to be playing all his cards right.

On Friday that meant racing around the concert hall holding the FIFA election between the first and second ballots and rallying votes while using every piece of leverage at his disposal to engineer an outcome he wanted.

Amazingly, he got it. Late on Thursday, Gulati had announced that U.S. Soccer would be supporting Jordan’s Prince Ali, a close friend, on Friday, even though Prince Ali was clearly the third-most supported candidate of the five who were running. Co-favorite Infantino, the UEFA general secretary whom Gulati also knows well, was nonplused. But they didn’t burn any bridges.

Politics is a funny thing. Your friend can become your enemy and vice-versa. Infantino, after all, was for many years the right-hand man of Platini—the guy who handed Gulati his worst-ever defeat. But that hadn’t kept Gulati and Infantino from building their own tight relationship.

As it happened: FIFA election

“I told [Infantino] personally, before we put anything out publicly, I met with him and said this is what we’re going to do,” Gulati said after Infantino had won. “He wasn’t ecstatic about it, obviously, but he also knew—and I said it to him—that we would be with him when it mattered and as long as he was in the race. He knew exactly what that meant [that the U.S. would vote for Infantino in the second round if needed].”

“We had talked about it,” Gulati continued. “I’ve talked with Gianni as much as I’ve talked with any candidate over the last six months. We’ve met five, six, seven times. So I think [Infantino winning] is a good outcome.”

Gulati and U.S. Soccer most certainly did not want Sheikh Salman to win. Accused by human rights organizations of casting a blind eye to the arrest and torture of Bahraini national soccer team players during the Arab Spring in 2011, Salman (who’d been Bahrain’s national soccer federation president at the time) had strenuously denied any improper behavior. Meanwhile, Salman had said other sports were more corrupt than soccer, giving the impression that he wouldn’t be energetic about instituting reforms in FIFA.

Momentum appeared to be building for Salman here in the hours before the election. The Associated Press had released a story early Friday morning that called Salman a “heavy favorite” who had likely lined up the necessary support in Africa and in his home Asian confederation.

But in the end, Sheikh Salman and his mulleted kingmaker, the Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad, couldn’t wrangle enough votes. Infantino pulled 88 votes to Salman’s 85 on the first ballot (in which 138 votes were needed to win), and then the U.S. and other Ali supporters switched to Infantino on the second ballot to give him 115 votes (11 more than the required 104 for a simple majority and the win).

It was the first two-ballot FIFA election in 42 years, and it provided plenty of surprise and human drama. Thinking Sheikh Salman might earn the 138 votes necessary for a two-thirds majority on the first ballot, the audience gasped loudly when Infantino had 88 to his 85.

Then Gulati sprung into action as the Fox Sports “SunilCam” followed him around the room as he worked the tables. At one point before the first ballot totals were released, Gulati and German FIFA ExCo member Wolfgang Niersbach double-teamed Sheikh Ahmad on the stage, gesticulating their arms wildly in animated discussion, after which Gulati theatrically slapped a piece of paper on the table in front of him (Perhaps the passing of time will allow that story to be told). At other points Gulati was seen in deep discussion with Infantino.

Ultimately, Gulati got a FIFA president he wanted, and he showed that the U.S. has emerged as a force on the world scene. Watching Gulati work the room here and have such a central role with the eventual winner, you couldn’t help but wonder if Gulati, still just 56, might run for FIFA president himself someday.

He didn’t want to talk about that, of course. Not on Friday. Not when things had ended up working out so well for him and for U.S. Soccer.

“This is a good day for the sport,” he said. And while FIFA still has a long way to go to earn real credibility, February 26, 2016, will likely be viewed as a step in the right direction. It’s often easy to make fun of FIFA lingo, and that was the case at first for this so-called “extraordinary” congress. But that’s exactly what this ended up being.

Absolutely extraordinary.