By Paul Gardner
The election of Sunil Gulati as President of the United States Soccer Federation four years ago was unquestionably one of the most important events in the history of the sport in this country.
It brought to the office, for the first time, someone who combined all the vital qualities necessary -- an American-reared soccer person with a great deal of experience in the running of the game in this country, and someone who could be said, without distortion, to represent the new generation of American soccer -- the generation that has grown up during the heady and quite extraordinary expansion of youth soccer over the past four decades.
As a bonus or two, we also got someone of rare intelligence with an economics degree. Almost an identikit for the very person to bring modernity to a sporting activity that has been taking off in the rest of the world and turning itself into a global, billion-dollar business.
During his first term of office -- the past four years -- Gulati has overseen a substantial modernization of the Federation, a streamlining of its operations, as it enters the world not only of big-time sports, but of global big-business.
Much has been accomplished, much is waiting to be accomplished. I asked Gulati to talk about his first four years as President and to speculate on what the next four years will bring. This is what he told me ...
As to any accomplishments, we’re talking about a lot of different people who have been involved -- the U.S. Soccer staff, Secretary General Dan Flynn, Bob Bradley and the national team, MLS under Don Garber’s leadership and so many others -- players, volunteers, fans and so on. One of the things that comes up -- I’ll call it an oddity -- when I try to look back over these four years is that I’ve been involved with the Federation for a long time -- and was involved in a number of ongoing initiatives that predate my presidency. For example, the Bradenton residency program and Project 40 -- these are not new, they haven’t just happened in the last four years. My involvement goes back 25 years now, and these programs are part of the continual development of the sport.
Increasingly, I like to look at what we’re doing in the sport with a 50-year time horizon. It begins in 1984 with the successful staging of the Olympic games. That got the attention of FIFA and paved the way for them to give us the World Cup in 1994. We qualified for the 1990 World Cup, we successfully staged the ‘94 tournament, started MLS in 1996, had a spectacular Women’s World Cup in 1999, a great run in the World Cup in 2002, and so on.
So this year is a halfway point in that 50-year cycle. I’m pleased with the progress over that period. From the past four years, the highlights have been the start up of the Development Academy, last summer’s national team successes -- finishing top of our World Cup qualifying group and the wins over Egypt and Spain in the Confederations Cup, and the extraordinary commitment that we got from our media partners, with ESPN greatly expanding their coverage for this summer’s World Cup.
We’ve seen our women winning Olympic gold, and we are now a soccer country that has full-time professional referees.
On the administrative aside, we’ve reduced the board from 42 members to 15, and we have greater minority representation -- than we’ve ever had.
If there’s been any roadblock, I’d say it’s simply that you can never do things as quickly as you would like -- but I’ve become more patient with that as I get older.
The Development Academy program represents a major change in youth soccer, as it brings the involvement of pro clubs -- and that was something that some people found hard to accept.
For the future, for the next four years, player development will continue to be of major importance. We’ll be looking at trying to involve a broader base of younger players. Bradenton is focused on a small group; the Development Academy takes in several thousand, but they are still elite players.
We’re now going beyond that, looking at millions of players -- it will be about finding ways of getting our message to them, trying to influence the way the game is taught and played by millions. We will lay out a framework -- like an education policy -- that the sport should be more about skill development and enjoyment of the game at youth levels, and then find a way to get that message to a broad base of coaches and players. I think that can be done in many ways, one example of which might be a down-loadable video instruction series. I’m not talking about drills, but having our gifted players -- say Tab Ramos or Claudio Reyna (both of whom are on our player development task force) -- showing their skills and basics.
Bradenton -- the residency program -- was and is what I’d call an “ongoing temporary program” to deal with specific issue, the lack of a professional training environment for young elite players. If that situation started to change, if MLS and other clubs have a situation where the players are training five days a week in a good environment and this was replicated across the country ... that would be a signal that we don’t need Bradenton. The players could be in a more natural environment, living at home while training, but I don’t think we’re there yet.
Alongside player development, we’ll continue our referee and coach training programs. We’ll find ways of expanding our international relations strategy, under which we share our resources with developing-world countries.
This year is an extraordinarily important one for American soccer. There is the World Cup itself, and the expectations that our team will do well have risen, probably as a result of the Confederations Cup results last summer. There will also be considerably increased coverage of the World Cup -- something that gives us great opportunities to promote the sport. Then, at the end of the year comes FIFA’s decision on the hosting a future World Cup -- either 2018 or 2022. The “message” that we’re getting is that it will likely go to Europe in 2018, which will mean that we shall be competing with the non-European bidders for 2022 -- Australia, Japan, Korea, and Qatar. A lot of people seem to think that Australia is our most formidable rival.
It’s going to be a very, very important six or seven months for American soccer -- a great opportunity.
(This is Part 1 of Paul Gardner's discussion with Sunil Gulati, the recently re-elected U.S. Soccer President. Tomorrow's Part 2 will continue this discussion in Q&A form.)