In FIFA, U.S. are no superpower

December 3, 2010

SOCCER/So it will be Qatar and not the United States who host the 2022 World Cup finals – a decision from FIFA’s executive committee that left many fans in the U.S. angry, dismayed and a little confused.

The machinations of FIFA decision making are far from transparent as U.S Soccer chief Sunil Gulati implicitly acknowledged when he said that the vote wasn’t just about the merits of the bid: “It’s politics, it’s friendships and relationships, it’s alliances, it’s tactics.”

He is undoubtedly right and when it came to all those elements the U.S. was found lacking. Lacking by 14 votes to 8 in the final round of balloting with Qatar after lacking when it came to matching the Arab state’s glitzy presentation, impressive public relations and international endorsements.

The American fans may be convinced that their bid was the best – but it was all about the preferences of the 22 voters in Zurich and they had other ideas.

Thoughts of American optimists quickly turned to the future and Gulati was asked about the possibility of bidding for 2026 – but one can’t help but think that Mexico, who stood down for their U.S this time, are now regretting that decision and will not be so forthcoming next time.

Who knows when the U.S. will get another chance to host soccer’s premier event?

There will be a lot of talk in the next few days and weeks about how the game will continue to grow in North America despite this setback and only a fool would think that failure to secure 2022 will mean that Major League Soccer disappears or that the U.S. national team stops qualifying for World Cups.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this is a serious blow to what Gulati called “ a 50 year plan” to establish the sport in the States.

Fans are befuddled because they see great stadiums, modern infrastructure and expect the rest of the world will think that is good enough for FIFA. But Gulati must surely be all too aware that the U.S doesn’t have enough weight internationally, in what is called ‘sports diplomacy’, to be a favourite for big events.

The U.S. is no longer a powerhouse in the International Olympic Committee and has never been strong in FIFA. The Americans are part of a relatively weak confederation, CONCACAF and even their own member of the FIFA executive committee, Chuck Blazer, seems to operate outside of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s control and is more likely to be seen at the side of CONCACAF boss Jack Warner than next to Gulati.

Political influence outside of sport not only doesn’t translate into votes at FIFA and the IOC – it can sometimes even work against success, with countries who accept U.S. leadership in other fields especially unwilling to do so in the arena of sports.

I have a feeling that we might just see a change in direction from U.S. Soccer now, away from FIFA and trying to build influence on inhospitable terrain, and more towards what Americans are really good at – developing their own product and marketing it to their own population.

That means building Major League Soccer, creating better players for the national team and perhaps even getting more directly involved in trying to improve CONCACAF’s rather lame regional club and national team tournaments – the Gold Cup and the Champions League, although attempting that will involve a good deal of FIFA-style politics.

Whether Gulati has the stomach for another 20 years of FIFA politicking remains to be seen – he could hardly be blamed for not relishing the prospect of ‘networking’ in Rio, Moscow and Doha – but it will be fascinating to see what approach the federation takes to FIFA now.

After this particular setback there will surely be a temptation to turn away from trying to win influence with Sepp Blatter and his executive committee and instead, if they find allies, push for reform of FIFA and their electoral processes.

Whether U.S Soccer can take the high moral ground having been part of that process is an interesting aspect of what is sure to be part of the inquest into this defeat.

After Thursday’s vote, I asked Gulati whether he felt frustrated at the far from transparent selection process and if it was time for a change in how World Cup hosting is decided.

“It’s obviously not the way certain things are done in the U.S. or in other parts of the world and it is the way things are done in different parts of the world frankly and I had some discussions with some of our competitors about that.

“I am sure FIFA will look at what has happened over the last couple of months and the last two years of this process and decide how they want to go forward but I am not going to comment on that at this stage,” he said.

It will be fascinating to see if the Federation do decide to return to that issue at a later stage and push, with others, for change. Or whether the Americans will simply turn inwards now and focus on building the game within their own borders.

Either way, it is unlikely the Americans will try to win the World Cup in this fashion again.

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The decision to award Russia and Qatar the World Cup will be seen by many as absolute proof that there is corruption at the very heart of FIFA. This may well have further ramifications with some nations threatening to pull out of FIFA altogether.

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