Commentary

FIFA hearing: Power, politics, the two-choice equation and why U.S. Soccer sells itself short

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

According to U.S. Soccer's latest Form 990 return, secretary general Dan Flynn was its second highest-paid employee after Jurgen Klinsmann with compensation of $630,459.

He'll be in line for a nice raise after stepping in for his boss, U.S. president Sunil Gulati, to testify at Wednesday's Senate consumer protection subcommittee hearing into the FIFA scandals. For a good part of two hours, Flynn was grilled by senators on the bribery scandals that have ripped FIFA and Concacaf apart. He was asked about what he knew or didn't know and why didn't U.S. Soccer do more to initiate reform.

Three chairs to his left sat Scottish investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, who raised the question, "Where's Sunil?" It was one of many questions Flynn struggled to answer. "He's the man who takes, supposedly, American values to FIFA and Concacaf, and he is not here to talk about it today," noted Jennings.

Flynn, U.S. Soccer's chief executive, said he, not Gulati, was picked to testify because he was more knowledgeable about its day-to-day operations in the event they came up but when asked what U.S Soccer knew about the FIFA scandals, he said, "I knew nothing about any corruption." Nor, he added, could he be expected to know anything about what he termed "private, individual, secret transactions" that took four years and the full resources of U.S. authorities to bring to light.

Was Flynn surprised by the indictments of 14 FIFA officials and sports executives? "I just wasn't involved." Pressed on the issue, he said he experienced "moments of discomfort" during meetings with former Concacaf president Jack Warner and Concacaf general secretary Chuck Blazer. He couldn't state how long he had those moments of discomfort and he had no cold facts to back them. "The discomfort was all in a general feeling," he said.

Jennings' position: "U.S. Soccer had to know that Blazer and his fellow crook Jack Warner from Trinidad, fighting extradition now, with the approval of [FIFA president Sepp] Blatter were looting regional football and evading rightful taxes but they looked the other way. If American soccer leaders had taken action when they should have, Blazer and Warner would have been in jail, Blatter would be seeking asylum in Zimbabwe and the USA would be hosting the 2022 World Cup, not some graveyards in the gulf."

At the heart of the matter, why didn't U.S. Soccer take action? Perhaps speaking in terms the senators could relate to, Flynn said it all came down to votes. "We pride ourselves in our leadership," he said, "but understand at times our limited capacity for reform."

He rattled off the voting totals. U.S. Soccer's direct representation on FIFA consists of one member -- Gulati -- out of 25 on the executive committee. U.S. Soccer is just one of 209 members of FIFA. And it is one of just of 35 voting members of Concacaf, where voting control, Flynn noted, was held in the Caribbean with its 25 votes Warner held in his back pocket for many years.

Flynn said it came down to a "two-choice equation." Within FIFA, the choice was to participate or opt out.

"Find a way to participate," Flynn said, "in a manner consistent with our mission and core values." To participate was to get "a louder voice and seat at the table" in April 2013 when Gulati was elected to replace Blazer on the FIFA executive committee. To opt out, he said, was to risk the "hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars" that had been invested in building American soccer over the last 20 years.

(The rub, Flynn didn't mention, is that to participate in the game is to play the game. Gulati beat Mexican Justino Compean, in an 18-17 vote many expected Compean would win. Gulati needed 16 of the 25 Caribbean votes to overcome Compean's bloc support in Central America. The vote was not decided in Gulati's favor until the final vote registered by Anguilla -- a British overseas territory with a population of 13,600 -- breaking the 17-17 tie.)

Within Concacaf, the choices were to get what U.S. Soccer needed and keep quiet or face exclusion.

Flynn said U.S. Soccer needed to host events to grow the game, events like the Gold Cup, which has been held in the United States every year since its inception since 1991, and men's qualifying for the Olympics, which will again be held in the United States in October.

"We had to at times balance that with the potential to opt out," Flynn said of the USA's choices. "I felt with Mr. Blazer we had other things to do that could help build the sport and there was some concern that if I brought it to Mr. Blazer's attention, I may feel some level of discomfort in a different way."

Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, who had Flynn in his cross-hairs all afternoon, suggested there was a third choice: "Begin to ask questions. Begin an inquiry. Begin to shine the light. Begin to blow the whistle. Begin essentially holding accountable officials who might be guilty -- and we now know they are -- of wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and bribery that directly impacted the quality and integrity of the sport that you are responsible for upholding."

Jennings called U.S. Soccer "gutless" for not speaking out. Blumenthal said U.S. Soccer was guilty of "willful ignorance or blatant incompetence." Whatever it was, it sold short what Flynn has done in his 15 years as secretary general and Gulati in his 30 years working for the federation and everyone else has done to build up the sport in the United States.

By whatever standard you want to pick -- television revenues, fan support, FIFA sponsors, stadiums, infrastructure and, yes, results on the field -- American soccer is a powerhouse that shouldn't have to worry that it will be excluded if it speaks out.

8 comments about "FIFA hearing: Power, politics, the two-choice equation and why U.S. Soccer sells itself short".
  1. John Mcdermott, July 16, 2015 at 1:02 a.m.

    When Senator Blumenthal began to speak I had a flashback. If felt like I was watching "Senator Pat Geary" the fictional Nevada lawmaker chairing the hearings into the Mafia in the film The Godfather: Part II. Poor Senator Blumenthal couldn't even bother to make sure he knew how to correctly pronounce terms like "FIFA" or names like "Gulati" and "Sepp" and probably one or two others. That was embarrassing but no one, not his aides or colleagues, whispered in his ear to help him out. But he wasn't the one who came off the worst. That honor went to Mr. Flynn, who "knew nothing" about any corruption and must have used the term "discomfort" about two dozen times, probably more. He probably never felt as much discomfort as he did in Washington yesterday. I have to think that Sunil Gulati would have dealt with the Senators in a much more effective and less-evasive way and it's a pity he chose not to be there. I don't for one minute believe Gulati would be involved in any corruption. But he's been a close associate of Chuck Blazer for a long time and that inevitably raises questions in some people's minds. I have no doubt that Sunil can give answers that would satisfy most people. It's not fun to have a good friend who does something wrong and to then find yourself in the position of having to choose to either be loyal, without being an accomplice, to that friend- or abandoning him out of self-interest. The theatrical Andrew Jennings was a show unto himself. He can't help talking up his own role in this squalid story a bit too much while seeming ever so pleased with himself. But he, and Mr. Hershman and Mr. Bery all made very important points about what needs to happen going forward. Now it's up to US Soccer to step up and show stronger leadership. We may never host a World Cup again, but at least we'll know we tried to be part of the solution, instead of choosing to continue to be part of the problem.

  2. R2 Dad, July 16, 2015 at 1:45 a.m.

    All World Cup hosts are part of the problem, because they have all sold their souls to the devil when agreeing to FIFA's terms. The most egregious clauses have to do with the fact that FIFA avoids paying any taxes to the hosts over the course of the World Cup. Part of the reason FIFA is sitting on a geyser of cash is because they don't pay taxes. The call for reform must include this inequity. FIFA must become a true non-profit, with open books and transparency, if it is to regain any credibility at all.

  3. Kevin Leahy, July 16, 2015 at 6:35 a.m.

    Fifa will become transparent when congress does. NEVER! I take any investigation that, is done by congress to be an exercise in futility and a waste of taxpayer money. The sponsors are the only ones that, can reform FIFA and if they had any stones, Blatter would already be gone.

  4. Garrett Isacco, July 16, 2015 at 9:14 a.m.

    Alexie Lalas in commentary basically called Blumenthal a grandstanding politician. That about sums it up, as Blumenthal knows nothing about soccer in the USA or anywhere else. The Senate is a mess and Blumenthal is part of the problem. He should Stick to trying to get the budget done and legislation passed rather than this joke of a hearing.

  5. Kent James, July 16, 2015 at 10:19 a.m.

    I'm not sure of the purpose of the Senate hearing, but I agree with R2, that FIFA needs to adhere to host country tax policies rather than getting an exemption. The bigger problem with FIFA is the organizational structure; when Jack Warner can control enough votes to determine how CONCACAF is run, that's a problem. Instead of the current one country one vote structure, why not make the current voting blocs more official. Divide the world into 51 votes (or some other appropriate number), and then organize countries so that each block has 1/50th of the world's registered players (or some combination of player registrations and population). So instead of Jack Warner controlling the 25 Caribbean votes, he might control the votes of the same Caribbean countries (assuming they like his leadership), but it might only be one of the 51 votes (while the US also gets one), so tin-pot dictators would not determine how FIFA operates. Big soccer playing countries (Brazil, Germany) would get a vote on their own, the small countries (Maldives, British Antilles) would have to join with other small countries to have the power of the bigger countries. Medium size countries might have to join with one or two other countries. Just an idea...

  6. Kelly Quinn, July 16, 2015 at 10:39 a.m.

    If people want the FIFA corruption to end, then we need to be able to critique the administrators down, yet FIFA is setting itself up to be beyond reproach. As to why a senator is involved in soccer is beyond me, perhaps Blumenthal should work on cleaning up politics and then maybe sports.

  7. Allan Lindh, July 16, 2015 at 5:29 p.m.

    Just gasbags venting. What US Soccer should do is talk to Platini and UEFA about it pulling the plug on FIFA, and starting over with an organization built on different principles. The US and the EU television put up a major chunk of the bucks, because we are the markets that can pay. We form a clean organization, the advertising money will follow, and FIFA will wither away.

  8. John Foust, July 17, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    I am becoming more and more a fan of the "start over with a new international organization" solution. FIFA is too far gone ...

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