Under normal circumstances – whatever they are – one of the best qualified people to take over the disgraced power called FIFA would be Sunil Gulati.
Gulati, 55, is in the prime of life, an international-minded economist who teaches at Columbia University.
He is as American as apple pie (or vegetarian samosa.)
He has been active in soccer, in FIFA, forever.
And that’s part of the problem.
I hasten to add that I have known Gulati since the early 1980’s, when I stood with – sometimes between – Paul Gardner and Sunil Gulati, as they conducted a wind-blown seminar in the bleachers at Columbia (great teams back then.) It was like standing between Jefferson and Hamilton at the Continental Congress. A rookie could learn a lot.
Gulati has done just about anything in soccer – played it, refereed it, volunteered, and moved up the ladder to currently president of the United States Soccer Federation and member of the executive committee of FIFA. He is a lifer, smart and progressive, international in family, international in knowledge.
Gulati has also lived and worked in the same organization, the same town, as Chuck Blazer, the extravagant long-time FIFA bag man right out of a Paul Simon lyric. (“Fat Charlie the Archangel/ Slipped into the room….Sad as a lonely little wrinkled balloon….” -- Crazy Love, Vol. 2)
Soccer’s Fat Charlie the Archangel is singing his own sad little tune in court in a wheelchair on Wednesday. I have no reason to believe there is anything he could say about Gulati, who most recently cast a most prophetic figure by openly voting for Prince Ali of Jordan when Sepp Blatter still appeared to have the power to crush yet another opponent like one more june bug.
When it counted, when the world was watching, Gulati cast his career on the side of reform and change. He sent one more signal to the world that FIFA was even worse than it appeared.
(In the current paperback revision of my soccer book, “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer,” with a new chapter on the 2014 World Cup, I write about Sepp Blatter: “By the end of 2014 it seemed clear that, in some cosmic way, FIFA had been found out.” End of blatant plug.)
FIFA has indeed been found out, most importantly by Loretta Lynch, that already legendary attorney general. Fat Charlie the Archangel and the Warner Brothers are singing. Mud is going to be flying for a long time, people turning on their colleagues. This is Elmore Leonard territory – not about truth but about what desperate people claim to be the truth. Goodness knows what's out there. Logic says FIFA cannot afford to move ahead with any insider running it.
(Michel Platini? Quelle blague. What a joke. This silky footballer, now a jowly insider, promised to vote for the U.S. for 2022, but then backed Qatar, which soon became France’s best new football friend.)
However, to name an American as head of FIFA, with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups gurgling in there like a bad meal, would only stir up the hornet nests of Putin and the Qataris – sounds like a doo-wop group, but far more troublesome.
The United States would love to be part of a North American World Cup in 2026, stretching from Toronto to Mexico City. Far as I know, this is Sunil Gulati’s idea, told to me in a friendly chat in his office a few years ago.
If FIFA cannot consider an American, that is a shame because the U.S. has a great supply of executives who could run soccer more cleanly than Blatter and the Goniffs (another doo-wop group) have done.
From the past generation, I could name David Stern, Peter Ueberroth and Dick Ebersol as sports people of vision and intelligence and honesty. Mitt Romney restored credibility to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Goodness knows there are corporate executives of multinationals that sponsor the World Cup who could run FIFA without the third-world bribery and threats that kept Blatter in power.
Prince Ali of Jordan is the nominal favorite, given his challenge to Blatter. He has many strengths. But I have now written 750 words about FIFA and have not talked myself out of the possibility that the American insider Sunil Gulati could also run this shamed organization.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.