Which Way for Sunil Gulati on the FIFA ExCo?

US Soccer chief and new member of FIFA's ExCo, Sunil Gulati, has a hand in creating reform recommendations for FIFA. But how will this affect his role on the ExCo? Photo: Wikimedia/US Department of State


By Roger Pielke, Jr.
Roger Pielke Jr. comments on the role of Sunil Gulati - member of FIFA's governance reform committee until he was recently elected to join the FIFA ExCo - who last week at FIFA's Congress in Mauritius "found himself in the odd position of receiving advice that he has helped to prepare".

Last week the world's power brokers who govern international football gathered in Mauritius, a remote island nation east of Madagascar. At the meeting, Sunil Gulati, an economics lecturer at Columbia University in New York and the president of the US Soccer Federation, was one of  the newest members of football's star chamber, the FIFA Executive Committee, having recently been narrowly elected to represent the football confederation comprised of Caribbean and Central and North American nations (CONCACAF). 

Despite maintaining a low profile during the past seven years at the helm of US Soccer, Gulati has been called “the single most important person in the development of soccer in [the United States].” His domestic duties include oversight of the men’s and women’s national teams, as well as Major League Soccer. He joins the FIFA leadership committee at a difficult time for the organization with a lot on the line, for both FIFA and Gulati himself. With soccer rapidly rising in popularity and financial stature in the United States, in his new role Gulati faces some difficult choices.  

Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet and is increasingly gaining popularity in the United States. For instance, the NBC television network recently outbid Fox and ESPN for the rights to broadcast the English Premier League in the United States over the next three years, paying $250 million, more than triple the winning bid for the previous three-year broadcast rights. Gulati deserves a lot of credit for raising the profile of the sport at all levels in the United States.

More broadly, increasing global interest in football has brought greater attention and scrutiny to how the sport is governed and how decisions are made, such as in the awarding of host rights to the quadrennial World Cup. What has been revealed often is not pretty, with allegations of bribery and corruption never far from big-time football governance. In the past several years, nine members of the FIFA Executive Committee – more than a third -- have been removed or stepped down as a result of allegations or findings of corruption. Controversy continues to swirl around the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. FIFA has been embroiled in so many accusations of shady dealings that in 2011 it set up a committee to propose reforms to its governance (the Independent Governance Committee).  

Despite the creation of the reform committee, FIFA’s response to the committee’s advice has been found so poor that recently one of its only independent members -- Alexandra Wrage, a corporate governance expert and president of Trace International -- resigned in protest, explaining “It’s been the least productive project I’ve ever been involved in.” Sepp Blatter, the much-criticized president of FIFA, was unmoved, and has declared the reform effort both a success and completed. The reform committee’s work was wrapped up at the FIFA Congress last week with FIFA claiming that its troubles are over, and yet many observers, including Mark Pieth the chair of the IGC, are saying that the work of reform has only just begun.

The need for governance reform was underscored in April when CONCACAF released a report which detailed decades of alleged fraud and mismanagement. The report alleges that Chuck Blazer, Gulati’s colleague at CONCACAF and immediate predecessor on the FIFA Executive Committee, along with Jack Warner (of Trinidad and Tobago and also formerly on the FIFA Executive Committee), were together responsible over several decades for appropriating more than $88 million – a staggering sum – mostly from CONCACAF and FIFA for personal gain. Not surprisingly both the IRS and FBI are apparently interested in learning more. FIFA has washed its hands of the scandal, explaining that it is now the responsibility of law enforcement officials.  

Gulati, who has not commented on the alleged corruption at CONCACAF which took place while he helped govern the organization, served on the FIFA governance reform committee until his recent election to the FIFA Executive Committee. Thus he helped to develop its recommendations aimed at improving the governance of the organization. Now as a member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Gulati found himself last week in the odd position of receiving advice that he has helped to prepare.

Gulati and colleagues identified as “indispensable” several of the recommendations that the reform committee has proposed to FIFA, but which have not yet been adopted. These include a call for independent integrity checks, term limits in office and full disclosure of compensation.   

Surely, as one who helped develop the “indispensable” advice, Gulati might have been expected to be a vocal champion for implementation of the proposals at last week’s FIFA Congress, right? Think again. Since joining the FIFA Executive Committee, Gulati has been almost entirely invisible on issues related to FIFA reform, and based on his actions last week, perhaps even an obstacle.

For instance, in a recent media call Gulati appeared to wobble a bit when asked if he would be willing to disclose his compensation from FIFA – along the lines recommended by the IGC for top FIFA officials -- providing a cautious yes, explaining that he will have “no problem of disclosing if it’s not a violation of any provision with FIFA for directors.” FIFA’s by-laws include no such prohibition.  

Far more challenging for Gulati is the issue of term-limits, which FIFA does not have – nor for that matter does US Soccer. Term limits have been deemed important in governance reform because football – like many sports – has had a tendency to be ruled by a small circle of powerful, seemingly unaccountable individuals (mostly men) whose regimes can last for many decades. Blatter, FIFA’s soon-to-be octogenarian president, has recently floated the idea of running for a 4th term as the organization’s leader.  Will Gulati voluntarily abide – at FIFA and US Soccer -- by the term-limit recommendation that he has proposed? 

According to Richard Conway, a reporter who covered the FIFA Congress from Mauritius, Gulati was among those on the Executive Committee who voted last week against bringing the term (and age) limit recommendations forward, pushing their consideration off at least another year. Gulati has been silent on why he rejected the advice that he helped to prepare and since being elected to the Executive Committee he has not publicly advocated for FIFA reform.

Similarly, will Gulati volunteer to undergo an “independent integrity check” of the sort which, as a member of the FIFA IGC he has called for of the FIFA Executive Committee? It would be a good opportunity for Gulati to demonstrate the importance and practicality of implementing this proposal that he helped to develop. In leading by example, perhaps others on FIFA’s Executive Committee might be persuaded to participate as well.  

Gulati’s election to the inner circle of FIFA leadership is potentially very good news – for US soccer, for international football and for the governance of sports more generally. Following his election to the FIFA Executive Committee Gulati emphasized the importance of American values for the governance of non-profit organizations like FIFA, “we’ve got standards in the U.S., whether it’s our American law or our American history.” The implication was that he would represent such standards on a body much in need of raising its game.

However, for those values of good governance to be realized in practice in an organization that has a very poor track record, Gulati is going to have to walk the talk. Will Gulati help to reform FIFA? Or will FIFA turn Gulati? One thing is for sure, with the increased visibility of soccer in America, Gulati should know that his actions will be more closely watched than ever before. Continued silence and inaction on FIFA reform is unlikely to be a viable option. Those American values are going to follow Sunil Gulati wherever he goes.

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