You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How to Love Soccer: Hit the Bar at 7:45 A.M., Says U.S. Federation President

DON EMMERT/Getty Images
Today is big for Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. At a two-day FIFA Executive Committee meeting that began Thursday, he looks likely to succeed at delaying a hasty vote on whether to move the 2022 World Cup Finals from their customary summer slot to the winter due to the climate of host country Qatar. Gulati is one of several good-governance types who became ExCo members after the opaque (to be kind) Qatar decision three years ago. He is also a senior lecturer in Columbia University’s economics department, where I took his class. We spoke on the phone roughly two weeks ago (I didn’t get to ask him about a since-published Guardian report that Qatar is using slaves who are dying at a rate of one per day to build soccer stadiums). We talked about next year’s World Cup, female representation on the ExCo, and the development of soccer in the United States.

Marc Tracy: Sum up for me your concerns generally about the 2022 World Cup.

Sunil Gulati: My comments are the only ones I’m going to refer to, which is: Any decision on the date should be studied very carefully, and we shouldn’t make decisions before having a full analysis of the consequences. That’s it.

MT: Do you think FIFA is getting better at internal policing?

SG: I don’t think there’s any doubt that over the last few years, there’s been some major improvements in governance, and I think those’ll continue to happen over the next few years. There’s now an independent ethics panel, with a judiciary arm and an investigatory arm; there’s been a new code of conduct and ethics; there’s new financial oversight provisions.

MT: There have been copious match-fixing allegations, particularly in Asia as I understand it. I know that’s not precisely FIFA—

SG: Well it is, because it’s the integrity of the game. FIFA’s got a lot of involvement in that, as do some confederations, spending a lot of time with Interpol trying to get to the bottom of that. It attacks the very essence of sport if outcomes can be affected by something other than what’s going on on the field.

MT: In Brazil there have been widespread protests recently, and they’ve had to do with a lot of things, but one is the infrastructure being built for the 2014 World Cup, which protesters say is money better spent elsewhere. Do you think the 2014 World Cup will be a net good or a net bad for Brazil and Brazilians?

SG: I don’t know how one would go about answering that ex ante. When you look at previous events, it’s not just about economic impact. If one can change the face of a country, as certain countries which have hosted World Cups or Olympics I believe have been changed, that’s a very different analysis than a simple economic impact study.

MT: Have you been pleased with the U.S. men’s national team’s performance of late?

SG: I think we’ve done very well. We’ve qualified for the World Cup early, with two games to spare. We probably will end up having the best record we’ve ever had in a given year this year, and [we] tied for the best record we’ve ever had last year. Won the Gold Cup, won twelve games in a row, have probably a player pool right now of 35 to 40 players who are serious candidates for the World Cup. I look at the event in Columbus last week, with a win over Mexico, big T.V. rating, sold-out game—very much pro-U.S. [crowd]—I think all things are going quite well.

MT: Can you point to any tactical changes Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has implemented that you think have helped?

SG: Let’s call it an attacking mentality. The example I’d use is the Bosnia game, where we were down 2-0, playing away from home, and at 2-2 we were still attacking in a game where most teams would’ve sat back. That combined with the fact that there is no one who believes they’ve got a sure spot on the team.

MT: There is now, for the first time, a woman on the FIFA Executive Committee. Do you think it should be a priority for FIFA, given the historical and current disparities, for there to be more?

SG: Am I pleased that there is female representation on the Executive Committee? The answer’s absolutely yes. Do I think there should be more? The answer is yes. The question is: Should there be automatic seats? Or should we be doing things to encourage women in the game to get into leadership positions? Basically you’re trying to reverse a pattern of discrimination and lack of opportunity. And in fact now there are three women on the Executive Committee, one of whom is a voting member and two of whom are in observer status. In an ideal world, it would happen naturally. But if it doesn’t, then I think we do need short-term solutions and mandated seats.

MT: Soccer players sometimes suffer concussions, primarily because of headers. Do you think soccer should be looking into rule changes or other solutions?

SG: Obviously the health of participants is absolutely critical, and there’s still a lot of studies going on about concussions. There have been some rule changes within leagues about physical play when it involves use of elbows going up for headers.

MT: You were present at the inception of Major League Soccer. How do you think it’s evolving?

SG: The league has been around since 1996, and if you’d said to those of us who were involved 17 years ago, “You’re going to build a league, and by 2013 you’re going to have 19 teams in Canada and the U.S. averaging 18,000 people with 13 soccer-specific stadiums having been built over the last 14 years, with multiple players on the national team,” and on and on and on, then I would say, “We’ll take that.” I think it’s gone very well for a league that compared to the other four major sports is still in its infancy.

MT: One thing I’ve sensed over the last few years—and this is, admittedly, from walking around New York City, not Seattle or Portland—is there are a lot of Barcelona or Manchester United jerseys being worn. Plus you now have NBC broadcasting [English] Premier League games. Do you think the increasing popularity of these other leagues is good for MLS in a “rising tide lifts all boats” sense? Or is it bad?

SG: It’s a fair question. I think overall the increased interest in the sport is a plus. So if I use the example of the [National Football League] becoming more popular, does that hurt college football? In the case of [soccer], what you want is affinity for your “college team”—if I’m following that example—you want affinity for the Seattle Sounders. Yeah, you can also like Barcelona and watch them on Saturday morning as long as you’re watching Seattle in the evening or going out to the stadium. And you’re right—New York is a little bit different. Walking around downtown Manhattan is quite a bit different than walking around Seattle or Portland, given the affinity for those two teams, or Toronto or a number of other MLS cities. That takes time. Barcelona’s been around for a few years.

MT: I worry that I might find football fandom no longer morally tenable at some point, and I would like to become a better soccer fan. What should I be looking for while watching soccer? What might I really appreciate, as a sports fan?

SG: If I were trying to get you to be a fan of reading, I wouldn’t recommend you read a lousy novel. In an ideal world? You want to see what people are all excited about? Go watch a game in Portland. Get to a game in Seattle. Get up at 7:45 and watch Man U play or go to a bar at 7:45. Go see other people’s passion. It’s the equivalent of discussing a movie with some people.

MT: I think Twitter’s been great for that.

SG: Yeah. But I don’t think it’s, “Listen: What you should really look for are back heels or side volleys.” If you watch Barcelona play and you’re a sports fan, you’re going to appreciate some of the stuff that happens, because like all good sports, you say, “I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it.”

MT: When did you realize you were going to be a soccer fan?

SG: I think it was development over time. A big part of that was the first time I saw a game in Europe. Which was in Liverpool. And I stood and sang essentially at the most volatile and vocal section at Anfield—it’s called the Kop. I was 18. And it was an experience that I’ll never forgot.

MT: Whom were they playing?

SG: Oh, God, I don’t know. Didn’t matter. There wasn’t any team other than Liverpool that day. I think actually it was Ipswich. I’ve got a diary somewhere where I would’ve kept it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.