How influential can one man be among a sea of individuals resistant to change? Sunil Gulati will surely find out over the next four years.
Make no mistake about it, the presence of Gulati, U.S. Soccer's president, on the FIFA Executive Committee is a great step forward for the USA's voice on the international level. Just how strong-wielding that voice can be, though, remains to be seen.
Gulati beat out Mexican federation president Justino Compean by one vote in Friday's CONCACAF election for one of the region's seats at the table of the most powerful group of executives in world soccer, getting the chance to increase his role in the future of the sport.
The perception of the FIFA ExCo is one of a corrupt mess. It's one of an old boys' network that is set in its ways, works back room deals, swims the backstroke in a pool full of kickback money and is manipulated by dollars, euros and any other form of currency that will grease the wheel.
That has proven to be anything but Gulati's style, and whether he can exert enough of an influence to instill some real change at the sport's highest level -- and determine for a fact if that organization is open to legitimate change -- will be his grandest task. It's not as if Gulati hasn't already been trying. He has been a member of FIFA's Independent Governance Committee, one that is scheduled to meet in May to take the next supposed step in creating a vehicle for reform.
"You’ve got an institution that’s been around a long time that obviously has had a number of challenges over the last few years on governance issues and the public relations that go along with some of those governance issues," Gulati said on a conference call with reporters on Monday. "I think, in fact, at the highest level there is a sincere effort to try to reform and change the organization. I think some of the things that have happened show that clearly there needs to be a lot more done, and hopefully some of that will happen in May and a lot more will happen beyond that."
The elements of ethnocentrism and embracing the way other cultures conduct themselves also come into play for the multi-national ExCo. Just because things are done one way in America does not mean that the majority of FIFA's top-level executives necessarily would agree. That is something to take into account when pondering Gulati's -- or anybody's -- attempt at blazing a new trail.
"Traditions and cultures are very different," Gulati said. "To take a simple example, in a U.S. non-profit it’s not a recommendation or a norm, it’s the law that we have to disclose compensation of our top-level employees and our top outside contractors. That’s not the norm in Europe or in most of the rest of the world, certainly in Switzerland [where FIFA HQ is situated].
"That may be the most easy example, so there are any number of other areas where our experience, our legal system, our history and culture are different than other places, so it’s not easy, but in terms of influencing at the Executive Committee obviously I've had a chance to do that. At the governance panel I think a lot of people share those same things while understanding there are differences across countries."
Among the ways that Gulati differs from his new colleagues is his stated openness to transparency, specifically when it comes to money. His FIFA ExCo CONCACAF representative predecessors Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner are all over a checkered CONCACAF integrity report that was released a few days ago, with damning evidence of misappropriated funds and fraud engulfing both ousted individuals.
"It’s my belief that FIFA should, in fact, disclose the compensation of directors," Gulati said. "I would have no problem of disclosing if it’s not a violation of any provision with FIFA for directors."
As for tangible changes Gulati touched on that could impact the USA directly, he mentioned sealing a fourth automatic berth in the World Cup for CONCACAF and having the United States host another World Cup in the future after its failed bid for the 2022 competition.
Gulati remained largely silent after Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup hosting rights amid allegations of bribery to seal the deal -- "If there’s an investigation that is going on, so be it. Other than saying, yes there are rumors out there or there are not, I’m not sure what I would be commenting on, frankly," Gulati said Monday -- and that silence most assuredly kept him the good graces of the current Executive Committee members who partook in that vote.
Entering his new position with those bridges intact provides an advantageous political boost for Gulati. He does not have the clout or persona to enter the FIFA ExCo with a machete and slash through its long-standing ways, methods and traditions instantaneously on his own, so he will need the support of his fellow committee members moving forward. Even so, whatever change to the status quo for which he will be responsible and whatever pathways for CONCACAF and the USA he can carve will have to develop over time.
There is a vast difference between being idealistic and realistic, though. For Gulati, turning the former into the latter across a group of individuals who have proven to be entrenched in the way they go about their business will be his greatest challenge.