It’s easy to say Gulati should go, but is it the right thing for American soccer?

As one of Sunil Gulati’s chief defenders over the years, I think I ought to come out of hiding to discuss the near-majority position of American soccer fans (at least those on Twitter and Bigsoccer), that US Soccer head Sunil Gulati must “go” for his role in the US 2022 World Cup bid failure.

Here’s what I think. The question of whether Gulati should go is almost irrelevant – Gulati recently won his second four-year term and will not face the voters until February 2014. What is relevant is the question of who would replace him. Supposing he did go, who would replace him? Merely saying “anybody” isn’t a real answer.

Here’s the other situation, until FIFA changes its bidding rules to allow the same confederation to host twice-in-a-row, the USA is now the enormous favorite to host the World Cup in 2026. Australia, China, and the whole of Europe (w/Russia hosting in 2022) are out, leaving the US the limited potentially opposition of South America (more to come on them), Africa, and erm, New Zealand.

Now, if you believe the rumors out of FIFA (and my good friend Jon Tannenwald did on Dan Levy’s podcast recently), FIFA wants the centennial World Cup of 2030 to go to Argentina and Uruguay, the two finalists of the first ever World Cup. That almost literally leaves Mexico, New Zealand, Egypt, and Morocco as opponents and that’s only if you accept that FIFA would go to a second Arabic-speaking country in three tournaments before returning the USA.

Here’s what all this means. How big of risk is it to chuck Gulati and his allies out of US Soccer when so many of them have the personal contacts, lessons learned and maybe even dirt on FIFA members that you’d want to win the World Cup in 2026? Is dumping Gulati before 2026 is selected not a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” While canning Gulati would certainly feel good after the 2022 loss, it doesn’t change the fact that he and his staff’s experience in the process makes them more valuable if you’re going to try again in 2026. If you thought 2022 was a “slam dunk,” then 2026 is setting up as one of those Blake Griffin monstrosities.

[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eRKXGiAAnw"]YouTube – Dunk of the Night (11/20/2010): Blake Griffin’s Monster Slam Dunk on Timofey Mozgov[/ame]

Yeah, like that.

By the way, if I have to name the biggest mistake by Gulati’s World Cup bid team it’d be this one. I think they got overexcited and started talking up the bid too early. Instead, they should’ve kept themselves and the rumor mill quiet and once they saw that Qatar and its billions were going after it, simply let Asia have 2022 and possibly even support Qatar in that effort. The problem is that once it became clear that US was bidding, they couldn’t be seen dropping out because of Qatar, it would’ve made US Soccer look bad and would’ve set off the collusion alarms even earlier than they ended up going off.

But getting back to my point, there’s no doubt that Gulati has been weakened politically by this loss. Even I, as a defender of his, will admit that. But behind him is a total void. Who do you want running US Soccer. (And just as importantly, who would want to?)

That’s my point.

Until there is a qualified, motivated figure standing “in opposition” to Gulati, all this talk of him resigning doesn’t matter one iota. Elections aren’t won by “Mr. Else, Anybody,” they’re won by people. And until that someone emerges publicly, all the anti-Gulati noise is just that – noise.

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14 thoughts on “It’s easy to say Gulati should go, but is it the right thing for American soccer?

  1. Qatar. Get Over It

    At the risk of sounding like American-hating, socialist-sympathizing, Hispanic-espousing, nothing-new-to-be-saying Paul Gardner…it’s time for U.S. soccer fans to get over it.

    This decision that FIFA made on the 2022 World Cup: holding the World Cup in a country that could not qualify on its own, a country without a world-class player from inside its borders, a country whose bid book was wrapped in money.

    That was the U.S. when FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup. The decision—coming on July 4th 1988—brought criticism and skepticism from the soccer world.

    The U.S. had not qualified for a World Cup in 30 years; its national professional league had folded; and the best Americans were playing in college, not Europe.

    The criticism came from the soccer establishment. Their newspapers said the tournament had been sold to corporate America, that stadiums would be empty, that transportation would be difficult, that the summer heat would devastate the players. (The U.S. media even got involved, warning people of the riots that would accompany the World Cup.)

    Italy’s American carpet-bagger Giorgio Chinaglia said that soccer would never take hold in the U.S. and encouraged FIFA to reconsider its decision. French newspapers said that the U.S. should have to qualify to play in the tournament it would host.

    There were stadium issues. The Detroit venue would be indoors with air conditioning, a first for a World Cup game. Its surface and others stadiums’ artificial surfaces would have to be replaced with new grass.

    In all the U.S. offered a risk with a big payoff. The lack of soccer offered FIFA extreme growth potential for the game. The decision paid off while critics had to eat their words.

    The U.S. did subsequently qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the one held before its automatic berth. For the 1994 World Cup, England failed to qualify, as did France, just four years before its automatic berth. Italy limped into the second round and drove its fans away after that.

    To this day, that risky World Cup is still the most successful even though the tournament has grown from 24 to 32 teams. An average of 69,000 people attended each game for a total of 3.6 million.

    The payoff encouraged FIFA to take the tournament to Asia in 2002, Africa in 2010, Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. The risks keep paying off, risks that began with the decision to hold the 1994 tournament in the U.S.

    By extension that decision prevented us from hosting the 2022 tournament. The 1994 World Cup was the catalyst for soccer to take off in the U.S. And now we are a soccer nation. We are established.

    Our women have won multiple championships. Our youth have won medals. Our men have qualified for the last six World Cups, have beaten world powers, and played an international final. It’s where we had hoped to be. We are not edgy or unknown any longer.

    Qatar is.

    This post is also available at soccerprofessor.com and via Twitter @soccerprofessor.

  2. I agree with you. It puzzles me to hear people complain about how corrupt FIFA is and then criticize Gulati for not being able to manipulate the organization as well as the representatives from notoriously corrupt nations can. It’s as silly as the English who complain that FIFA’s corrupt and then blame their press for saying that FIFA is corrupt.

    We delivered a great bid – arguably the best bid our nation could offer. Unfortunately, at least 14 members of FIFA’s executive committee were looking for something else.

    The only thing you can blame Gulati for is helping soccer develop so well in this country that, unlike some of our competitors, we’re no longer seen as a nation that needs assistance. We’ll never again be that struggling market, where a World Cup could get the ball rolling. We’re already rolling.

    So until FIFA’s philosophy of awarding the Cup to struggling soccer nations comes back to bite them in the ass (poor ticket sales, lethargic play on the field, modest TV viewership, or – worst case scenario – a terrorist incident), the safe bets like the US may have to wait until FIFA is feeling generous (or greedy, as the case may be).

  3. Soccertrivia, what, pray tell, does that have to do with Aaron’s post?

    (and Argentina didnt host the ’30 WC, they just made the final)

    But good point about Gulati. The rest of USSF’s hierarchy is made up of youth, amateur, and college types who would lose power and money were soccer in this country structured more top-heavy, which is what most of us fans want.

    If you think Sunil screwed the pooch, imagine how bad things would be with Richard Groff!

  4. Has Gulati indicated that he wants to run for re-election in 2014? I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to decide that eight years of it is enough beating his head against the wall.

  5. maybe they will have a true election this time and hopefully some more experienced candidates with real soccer backgrounds will step up.

    Its time for this position to become one of real respectability.

    My vote is for Tony DiCicco!

  6. Russia hosting in 2022? Either way I not sure that will help USA get the WC in 2026 since I hear some people specualting it will return to Europe (maybe Spain).

  7. My point was that I don’t think they’ll go BACK to Europe (which Russia, in soccer terms, is a part of) so soon after after 2022.

  8. I’m not sure I understand the point about the bidding field for 2026 being small.

    Russia is hosting in 2018, Qatar in 2022. My understanding is that the same continent shouldn’t host the tournament two consecutive world cups.

    So the whole of Europe would be eligible to host the world cup in 2026. Further, this fits the loose guideline that Europe host every other world cup or so. Even further, if FIFA indeed intends to steer 2030 to Uruguay, then China would almost certainly be in the lead for 2034. If Europe does not host in 2026, then it will be 2038 as the next Europe opportunity. I find it hard to believe that there will be a 20 year gap between European World Cups (or 32 years between Western European World Cups).

    So, although an awful lot can happen, it seems like it is set up to go like this:
    2018-Russia
    2022-Qatar
    2026-Western Europe
    2030-Uruguay
    2034-China
    2038-Western Europe
    2042-First open opportunity for North American or Oceania (the continent, not the federation) countries: Australia, United States, Mexico, et al.

    But if you asked me a year ago, I would have been surprised by the prospect of Russia and Qatar winning 2018 and 2022, so I guess one never knows, does one?

    I’d like to think USA has a good chance for 2026, but it seems the opposite – that the USA doesn’t have a very good chance at all until 2042.

  9. Other than the previous point, I agree with the overall points about Sunil Gulati.

    First, it is unfair to blame Sunil for the 2022 World Cup decision. With the money behind the Qatar bid, there was little he could do except hope for ethical behavior from the Fifa EXCO. When you look at suspicious elements in sum, from the exco members getting removed at the last minute to the purported direct payouts to various exco members and federations, obviously the hope for ethical behavior was not realized.

    Second, there is little doubt that Sunil is passionate about US Soccer and US Soccer has come a long way during his tenure. People get frustrated with Sunil sometimes because they perceive he plays politics, but sometimes at the executive level that is what the job demands to get things done. Sometimes you have to compromise between all of the involved parties and settle for an acceptable solution rather than a perfect solution.

    Whatever Sunil’s laurels and ills, the World Cup decision really shouldn’t be a decisive factor in determining his legacy considering the circumstances.

  10. FIFA’s ‘rule’ is actually that the same continent can’t host 2 out of 3. FIFA changes its ‘rules’ to suit its momentary interests, however.

    I would hope that USSF would demand a clarification on whether Asia and Europe would be eligible to bid before we bid. Because if FIFA allowed them in, I wouldn’t waste the time and money.

  11. Thanks Stan. That makes more sense with respect to the point the original author was making.

    I have never heard that rule and based on reporting of the world cup decision it isn’t common knowledge. Almost every outlet reported a restriction that “the same continent cannot host consecutive world cups”. They all used that exact wording, which can be verified by googling it.

    Is the 2 out of 3 rule documented anywhere? Not that it is too important, given the propensity of the rules to change, especially in a situation where the rules greatly restricted the field of potential bidders. But I am interested in the current set of guidelines or rules regarding world cup selection.

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