Gulati is just where he needs to be

By Paul Kennedy

By all accounts, Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, played a pivotal role in the election of Gianni Infantino as FIFA president.

If you watched Fox Sports' wall-to-wall coverage of Friday's  FIFA Congress in Zurich, you'd have watched via the “SunilCam” Gulati arguing projected vote totals on the executive committee stage with Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, Sheikh Salman's handler, as the first-round ballots were being counted and then huddling with Infantino between rounds before scurrying to find Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman voters and convince them to switch to Infantino in the second round.

What began as a three-vote advantage for Infantino over Sheikh Salman after Round 1 became a 27-vote victory in Round 2.

"Gulati got a FIFA president he wanted, and he showed that the U.S. has emerged as a force on the world scene," reported's Grant Wahl. "The United States played a key role in the intense lobbying that saw Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president on Friday," wrote Simon Evans of Reuters in his post-election analysis. The headline in the Los Angeles Times: "Sunil Gulati pulls some serious strings to help soccer in the U.S."

Just how many votes Gulati swayed -- and from what confederations and what camps -- is not known. All that you needed to see, though, was FIFA delegates coming up to congratulate Gulati to know what was the view from the floor.

Tellingly, Gulati smiled when the New York Times' Sam Borden asked him what was the composition of Infantino's voters: “I’m much more familiar with how it got to 115 than the first 88."

The Congress floor theatrics would not have been possible without the key move: U.S. Soccer's decision to stick with Gulati's old friend, Prince Ali, whom it had nominated and supported in the May 2015 election against then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Some would argue there was no love lost between Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman, and Prince Ali's voters would automatically have switched to Infantino. But Infantino needed someone to work the floor for him with Prince Ali's blessing, and that's where Gulati came in.

What's next for Gulati? France Football reported Infantino would pick someone from Concacaf to be FIFA's new secretary general as payback for its late support for him. Reuters  reported speculation in Zurich was that Gulati would be a good choice for the FIFA CEO role.

It would be hard to imagine Gulati giving up his day job -- Columbia University Senior Lecturer of Economics -- to work at FIFA full-time. After all, his work at U.S. Soccer won't be finished until it is awarded the 2026 World Cup and avenges the stinging defeat to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights five years ago. (On Monday night, Gulati said, "We can host a World Cup relatively easily. We can do it overnight.")

On the FIFA front, Gulati is where he needs to be. Overshadowed by Friday's presidential election was passage of sweeping reforms that will change the way FIFA operates. Just as much as Infantino's election was a victory, so were the FIFA reforms for Gulati, who headed the small but growing reform wing of the FIFA executive committee.

Indeed, Gulati's ability to help get Infantino elected reflected his growing influence on the exco. Gulati's close friendship with Prince Ali stems from their efforts to push change on the exco after he was elected in 2013 and in the face of extreme intransigence.

Since then, the voices of reform have grown with the addition of Englishman David Gill and Australian Moya Dodd. German Wolfgang Niersbach's future on the exco is in doubt as he has become embroiled in the German federation scandal stemming from its 2006 World Cup bid.

For others like Tunisian Tarek Bouchamaoui, the recent shift in the FIFA tides will allow them to become even more outspoken about change. (If anything, the big losers in Friday's election were the old African and Asian political machines.)

Gulati has been on the FIFA executive committee less than three years and he is already the ninth most senior member of the 25-person body that has been decimated by the FIFA scandal. (Twelve exco members who served with Gulati or quit before he was elected have been indicted or pleaded guilty to Federal corruption charges. And that doesn't include former UEFA president Michel Platini or Blatter, who are serving six-year soccer bans.)

Gulati's influence will only grow as the FIFA executive committee is dissolved and the 36-member FIFA council replaces it.
1 comment about "Gulati is just where he needs to be".
  1. Nalin Carney, March 2, 2016 at 10:09 a.m.

    Congratulations to Sunil for a job well done. If he wishes I would think he could get a leave of absence from Columbia to work as Secretary General to FIFA. I also believe someone else could conclude the work to bring the world cup to the U S A. Again and Again Kudos.

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