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Gulati can be blunt, but also politically astute. He and other American soccer executives have worked FIFA meeting rooms to slowly expand the country's influence. More than 20 Americans sit on FIFA committees—from the decision-making Executive Committee to the Fair Play and Social Responsibility Committee (though not the Football Committee, headed by Franz Beckenbauer, or the Marketing and Television Advisory Board, even though U.S. companies pay FIFA more than any other country for TV rights and sponsorships). A quarter-century ago, the United States was on maybe one committee.
Does that matter? If a country wants something from FIFA, it needs help. For the United States, that means the next six months are what Gulati considers "in many ways the most important in the history of the federation." The United States has a good team attempting to prove it belongs, has visibility and leverage thanks to ESPN's and Univision's $425 million in rights payments for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and has a bid to host either the 2018 or, more likely, 2022 World Cup. "I don't like the phrase tipping point, but I think we've got an opportunity here," Gulati says.
On Excel and PowerPoint, the U.S. bid has it all: stadiums, infrastructure, marketing, television, ticket sales; the bid lists more than 5 million seats available for games, 40 percent more than any other World Cup host is offering. That's a lot of revenue for FIFA, which takes all income from the event and then reimburses the host. Plus, the bid promises no public spending on stadiums, which, after the costs endured by South Africa to build potential white elephants, should be welcomed.
And, as you might expect, the U.S. federation has produced a slick video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, highlighting not just America's sports splendor but its diversity. (The video has been shown publicly only once; Gulati screened it for me.) Hyphenated American soccer fans say, "Bring it to my country" and "My country loves this game" in Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Polish, and other languages. The message: Forget the old target market of Odyssey-driving soccer moms and dads. This is an international footballing nation.
It's a tactic designed to appeal to FIFA's polyglot 24-member executive committee, which will select the next two World Cup hosts in December. So is the letter from Bill Clinton that Gulati slipped under the suite door of each Executive Committee member; the former president said he hoped to meet each of them in South Africa. Nothing impresses a privileged foreigner like a handshake from Clinton, who is the honorary chairman of the bid's star-studded board. It also didn't hurt that Vice President Biden attended the USA-England game and met with a group of FIFA officials, including Blatter and the head of the 54-nation African confederation.
Does the combination of business and political firepower make the United States a lock? Not by a long shot. In international sports, it's not always what you do; it's whom you impress, or promise, or pay. When CONCACAF—the 35-nation soccer federation for North America, Central America, and the Caribbean—met recently, it invited all nine World Cup bidders to make a pitch. When the African federation gathered, its "congress" was sponsored by the bid group from Qatar—which was the only bidder allowed to make a presentation.
Beating Algeria in Pretoria on Wednesday will send the U.S. team into the second round of the World Cup (a draw might, too). It will also give Gulati and other U.S. soccer execs more time to schmooze and maneuver from a position of strength. In American soccer's second half, Bill Clinton might turn heads, but winning games is what opens minds, and doors.
Correction, June 22, 2010: This piece originally stated that the United States concluded its stint at the 1998 World Cup by losing to Iran. The loss to Iran came in the U.S. national team's second of three games. (Return to the corrected sentence.)