U.S. could benefit from a potential 2022 World Cup revote by FIFA
As part of its reforms, FIFA could announce a revote of the 2022 World Cup
The feeling is some circles is that despite his flaws, Sepp Blatter supports the U.S.
A new FIFA president could have negative implications for MLS and WC TV rights
The e-mails and Twitter questions kept pouring in this week: Why was the U.S. Soccer Federation staying radio silent on the shenanigans at FIFA? Why didn't U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati take the moral high ground and publicly back England's call to postpone Wednesday's FIFA presidential election amid corruption investigations at world soccer's highest levels? And was the U.S. actually voting for incumbent FIFA president Sepp Blatter?
The answer, it turns out, is simple. Blatter may be a ruthless strongman presiding over an organization rife with corruption, but you know what? From U.S. Soccer's perspective he's a ruthless strongman who's still in charge and happens to be on our side. And in the end, Blatter provides the best chance the U.S. has to take over the prize that matters most to Gulati: hosting World Cup 2022 in the United States.
That brings up two big questions: Is it possible that Qatar might lose the hosting rights that it won for World Cup '22 in a 14-8 final-round vote against the U.S. last December? And has U.S. Soccer surrendered its credibility by failing to speak out against Blatter, who "won" four more years atop FIFA on Wednesday in an election that had only one candidate?
Let's break it down:
Is a revote for the World Cup '22 host back on the table? Not yet, but it could be down the road. The strongest indication yet came on Wednesday when German federation president Theo Swanziger called for an investigation of the controversial vote that gave Qatar World Cup '22. "There is a considerable degree of suspicion that one cannot sweep aside," Swanziger said. "This needs to be examined anew."
Swanziger is a close Blatter ally who replaced German Franz Beckenbauer this week on FIFA's powerful 24-man executive committee. And while there's no concrete evidence yet that Qatar broke the rules in its bid, there are reasons for an investigation into the 2022 bid process. For starters, the most powerful Qatari in world soccer, Mohamed bin Hammam, is already suspended and under investigation for allegedly trying to bribe Caribbean voters with up to $1 million in his campaign for the FIFA presidency. (He has denied the charges but did withdraw from the election last Saturday.)
If Bin Hammam is found guilty of bribery, it would raise additional questions about his role in Qatar's World Cup bid. What's more, Blatter announced a "zero tolerance" policy for corruption this week, and one of the best ways to back that up would be to conduct a thorough forensic investigation into every bid for World Cup '22: Qatar, the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea. If it turned up wrongdoing on Qatar's part, then there could be a revote. If it didn't, then Qatar could say it was a completely clean vote and keep the World Cup.
There are a few things to keep in mind here from the American perspective. One, Blatter almost certainly voted for the U.S. against Qatar last December. Two, Blatter may feel like he owes a big favor to Chuck Blazer, the U.S. member of the FIFA executive committee who turned in the detailed bribery allegations that led to Bin Hammam's departure from the FIFA presidential race. (Bin Hammam was Blatter's only nominated challenger.)
And three, Blatter announced this week the formation of a new "Solutions" committee that would identify problems in FIFA, including corruption, and have the power to conduct supposedly legitimate investigations. Some of the members of this committee might come from outside FIFA, said Blatter, who mentioned two names in particular. One was Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch player, and another was (wait for it) former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a soccer fan and Blatter friend who also happened to be on the U.S.'s World Cup '22 bid committee.
(Side note: It's revealing that Blatter's model for reform is one of the highest-ranking members of the Nixon administration.)
Still, a World Cup '22 investigation and potential revote are by no means guaranteed. Germany's Swanziger may have called for an investigation, but it's also believed that his FIFA ExCo predecessor, Beckenbauer, voted for Qatar instead of the U.S. bid. Questions also remain over what Bin Hammam might have received from Blatter in any backroom deal to get out of the FIFA presidential race. Is it possible that Blatter told him he wouldn't support an investigation into Qatar's World Cup bid? Perhaps.
If the U.S. doesn't get World Cup '22, was it still worthwhile to keep quiet and not join England in taking a public stand against Blatter's FIFA? Here's where it gets tricky. Do I think U.S. Soccer's Gulati would love to call out Blatter and FIFA after December's vote for World Cup '22? Yes, I do. Do I think Gulati realized that wasn't in his interests? Of course.
Some U.S. soccer fans would say the USSF shouldn't have supported Blatter under any circumstances. Others would say engaging in realpolitik would be fine as long as the U.S. get to host World Cup '22, but if that doesn't happen then the U.S. is supporting a dictator without getting anything meaningful in return.
U.S. Soccer would argue, however, that while the U.S. and English FAs are on good terms, the U.S. is in a different situation. The benefit of taking a public stand against Blatter is high for England's FA: It takes the moral high ground, and the message plays well in the English media, which has covered the FIFA controversies with far more scrutiny and column inches than any other country's press corps. Plus, England has lower chances than Antarctica of hosting a future World Cup, considering the way FIFA officials attacked England on Wednesday.
U.S. Soccer, on the other hand, clearly feels that it wasn't in its interests to publicly oppose Blatter if it knew he was going to win. For one thing, there hasn't been nearly as much coverage of the FIFA election in the U.S. as in England, so the benefit of taking a stand wouldn't be as high for the USSF. And U.S. Soccer must feel that it still needs Blatter's FIFA to support (or, at the very least, not oppose) a number of things other than World Cup '22 as the sport continues its development in America.
What could those things be?
World Cup TV rights for 2018 and '22. In 2006, Blatter's FIFA did U.S. Soccer and MLS a favor by agreeing not to accept a $350 million bid for the TV rights for World Cups '10 and '14 from NBC, which had no interest in committing to showing MLS or other international games. Instead FIFA later accepted a $325 million bid from Univisión (Spanish) and a $100 million bid from ESPN (English), which agreed to increase soccer's domestic exposure by doing deals with MLS and U.S. Soccer as well.
The U.S. TV rights for World Cups '18 and '22 will be up for bidding in the not-too-distant future, and U.S. Soccer would prefer that Blatter's FIFA choose a partner (read: ESPN) that also has a commitment to MLS and U.S. Soccer.
Continued FIFA approval of MLS's unique aspects. If it was up to Blatter, MLS would never include more than 20 teams (it currently has 18 and plans to expand beyond 20) and would play a fall-to-spring schedule (instead of a summer slate). Blatter might also have issues with MLS's single-entity structure and lack of promotion and relegation, but FIFA hasn't tried to crack down on those things during the years that U.S. Soccer has supported Blatter. Without that support, things might change.
Keep in mind, too, that Blatter's FIFA did U.S. Soccer and MLS a big favor in 2009 by not intervening in collective-bargaining negotiations between MLS and its players, despite calls to do so from FIFPro, the international players union. If Blatter wanted to make life difficult for U.S. Soccer and MLS, FIFA could change its stance on that also.
Are those reasons enough to justify U.S. Soccer's silence this week and support of Blatter? Not in my book, especially if the U.S. isn't able to host World Cup '22. I also happen to think the U.S. isn't nearly as weak in international circles as U.S. Soccer's actions this week would make you think. After all, more tickets for World Cup 2010 were bought from the U.S. than from any country outside of host South Africa, and the highest World Cup TV rights fees on the planet came from (you guessed it) the United States. Even if U.S. Soccer had called out Blatter's FIFA, he would have been foolish to antagonize such a promising giant market for the sport.
What on earth is going on in CONCACAF? The biggest loser of the week was Jack Warner, the CONCACAF president who's suspended from all soccer activities while FIFA conducts an investigation into allegations that he and Bin Hammam tried to bribe Caribbean FA leaders with up to $1 million in cash in exchange for their FIFA presidential election votes. (Warner denies the charges.)
Here, too, Americans were at the center of the story. The most fascinating personal aspect of the week's events was that Blazer, CONCACAF's general secretary, turned on Warner after they had worked hand-in-hand for 21 years atop the confederation. It was Blazer who asked John Collins, a Chicago-based lawyer, to assemble a dossier of evidence for FIFA.
Warner, long one of the most powerful men in world soccer, now faces the possibility of being banned for life from FIFA pending an investigation. And in Warner's absence things have turned farcical in CONCACAF.
The acting CONCACAF president, Warner ally Lisle Austin of Barbados, announced he had fired Blazer from his confederation post, while the CONCACAF executive committee riposted that Blazer would stay in power since Austin had no authority under CONCACAF rules to do so. By Thursday, both sides were lawyering up, and there remained a possibility that CONCACAF might split between the Caribbean nations (which comprise 25 of the confederation's 35 voting members) and the nations from North and Central America.
This story is a long way from being finished. FIFA's investigation into Warner and Bin Hammam's bribery charges will include the Caribbean soccer officials who accepted the alleged $40,000 cash bribes. One can imagine they may also be offered plea agreements to provide evidence against Warner and Bin Hammam.
Against that backdrop, CONCACAF was planning to host its showpiece event (the Gold Cup) starting this weekend in the United States. Chances are that what happens on the field will be, much like the UEFA Champions League final, a welcome relief from the nonsense we've seen in FIFA over the past week.
Such is life in world fútbol politics, where U.S. Soccer has held its nose (to say nothing of its tongue) and chosen a position not unlike that of Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration in the 1970s: supporting a thoroughly distasteful strongman (Blatter) whose policies may well turn out to be in the U.S.' interest.