Gulati’s presence still looms large as Cordeiro assumes U.S. Soccer presidency
New U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro inherits some contested terrain, a multi-million dollar surplus, an antitrust headache and — given the polarizing potential of some of the other candidates — a profound sense of anti-climax.
There will be plenty of time to look at Cordeiro in detail in the coming months, but with the conversation about to move on to just what he’s actually going to have either the will or the means to deliver, it’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on an especially fractious electoral process and the circumstances of Sunil Gulati’s exit as president.
Gulati is hardly riding off into the sunset. The NASL legal case, which last week appeared to take the unusual form of combining a Hail Mary pass and an offensive blitz, will again attempt to implicate the former president in an antitrust claim. Gulati’s continued presence as the leader of the World Cup bid is going to keep him in the spotlight for the next few months, at least. And given the provisional status of Morocco’s bid, the U.S. missing out yet again would likely keep Gulati foregrounded in the inquests as much as a successful bid would keep him involved. In lots of ways, Sunil Gulati is not going anywhere.
Nor are key parts of his legacy. Cordeiro now inherits the organizational structures and challenges of U.S. Soccer in this divided state. He also, ironically, won an election shaped by one of the great myths of the Gulati era — the idea that a single galvanic figure can treat institutional malaise like Alexander the Great treated the Gordian Knot.
That figure for Gulati was Jurgen Klinsmann, whose reputation as a fearless reformer hit its peak in 2006. Even through the subsequent erosion of that image by the rising legend of Jogi Low, Gulati saw Klinsmann as the man who had challenged the inertia of German football by transforming a moribund team and national system into a youthful, dynamic setup capable of shaping the modern game.
The latter might have seemed an ambition too far for anything a United States men’s national team head coach could hope to do at this stage of the game’s development here, but Gulati’s belief in Klinsmann as both motivator and, when needs be, iconoclast, drove him to single-mindedly pursue the German as the U.S.’ potential magic bullet. It suggested Gulati believed that some of the intractable issues of a huge country could all be solved by a no-nonsense figure of sufficient stature to challenge, if not reshape any institution.
We know how that turned out, although one aspect of the story seems a little clearer after this presidential election. With Gulati now leaving his post, and with Klinsmann likely to stand as his defining technical legacy, some of the similarities between two ostensibly very different characters do become more sharply apparent. It’s possible to look at Klinsmann’s fatal vanity in stretching himself too thin, for example, and see definite shades of Gulati’s fatal belief in his own enduring abilities.
And watching Gulati’s final speech as president (see the 43:00 mark below), and his overall handling of the Annual General Meeting in Orlando, the outgoing president held true to a familiar tone of prickly condescension — a mode that was also in Klinsmann’s professional repertoire when people he saw as beneath him (everyone involved in the sport in the U.S., apparently) dared question his methods or results.
That performance reaffirmed a recurring impression of Gulati — that he believes nobody can see what Gulati sees — certainly none of the candidates being given five minute slots to make their case before him. As one after another made bland, pointed, spirited or in some cases, downright weird, appeals to the voters in the room for themselves as agents of change, Gulati deadpanned his way around them as though they were the know-it-all students he shepherds in his other job. Even amid remarks that appeared directly aimed at him, Gulati looked indulgently indifferent.
Yet of course, this election was cast not only as a referendum on where to take U.S. Soccer next, but thanks in particular to the various degrees of insurgent spirit in the ex-athlete’s campaigns, as a referendum on Gulati himself — at the very least on the type of bureaucrat he is an archetype of. As Eric Wynalda characterized that suspicion in January, “We’re in the business of soccer, when we should be in the soccer business.”
It may have been swiftly apparent after the first round of voting that there’s been more populist sound and social media fury than institutional force behind those critiques, but the election of what’s basically a continuity candidate in Cordeiro will do little to take down the temperature of the conversation about a disconnected elite protecting their own interests.
Some of that rhetoric has been sensational to the point of slander, such as the now-infamous video display on a van outside the coaching convention in Philadelphia last month, with its crudely suggestive imagery linking Gulati, and indeed Cordeiro, to the disgraced Chuck Blazer. On that occasion, Gulati was right to share his disgust at the smear tactic during his convention remarks. And it may be, too, that as this poor World Cup cycle becomes fully contextualized by what happens in the next one, that Gulati’s contribution will be remembered beyond the rancor it has ended in.
Then again, Gulati was also the architect of his own departure by staying as long as he did. When any executive, anywhere, comes to personify a company, it’s always likely to lead to a succession crisis — even in the best case scenario when they eventually leave. This wasn’t the best case scenario for Gulati, and with Cordeiro’s election it may even get a little worse for him before it gets better, since — for his critics, at least — Gulati may finally be gone, but Gulati is still here.