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August 2, 2011

Storming FIFA's Gates

Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl discusses his failed bid to displace Sepp Blatter.

David Goldenberg

After years of trying to report on one of the most insulated and corrupt organizations in the world, Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl had an epiphany. Instead of trying in vain to shine a journalistic beam on FIFA's opaque practices from the outside, he would instead go inside and simply turn on the lights. So he ran for FIFA presidency under the banner of full transparency. In doing so, Grant Wahl the reporter became Grant Wahl the politician, the crusading Nader to Sepp Blatter's Bush and Mohammed bin Hammam's Gore.

Grant Wahl. Photo courtesy Golazo.
"I'd like to know what sponsors are telling FIFA officials behind closed doors."

Grant Wahl. Photo courtesy Golazo.

His entertaining tale of trying to get on the ballot, though, showcases the worst aspects of FIFA culture. Like most attempts to reform the organization, Wahl's candidacy was shot down before it even got underway due to the overwhelming influence the senior FIFA officials wield over their member football associations. So Wahl's gone back to doing what he does best: covering all aspects of the sport for an ever-growing audience in the US. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Wahl talks to Gelf about what new coach Jürgen Klinsmann will mean to the US men's team, discusses whether the US women's team choked, and names who will ultimately be responsible for pressuring FIFA into accountability.

Gelf Magazine: Your story of trying to get nominated for FIFA president is both hilarious and sad. Did you ever think you had a chance of getting past that first step? What would Sports Illustrated have done if you had?

Grant Wahl: I thought I had about a 2% chance of getting a formal nomination from one of the world’s national associations—not much, obviously, but enough that I went all-out to try to get one. I knew early on that US Soccer wouldn’t do it, so I contacted about 150 FAs around the world. I focused the majority of my energy on pitching countries that I knew cared about good governance and were unhappy with Blatter: England, Australia, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. In the end, it didn’t work out, but it was still a good experience, and I got my message out globally. We had talked at SI about what to do if I had been nominated: I wouldn’t have written anything for SI during those two months between the nomination day and the FIFA election day.

Gelf Magazine: Is FIFA more corrupt than other worldwide organizations with a lot of power (like the International Olympic Committee)? Why?

Grant Wahl: It certainly appears that today’s FIFA is more corrupt than those other organizations. The IOC made significant changes after the Salt Lake City scandal and now has a cleaner reputation. Part of the problem with FIFA is that its member nations aren’t unhappy with president Sepp Blatter as long as FIFA is bringing in money and distributing it around the world as patronage. Right now FIFA is sitting on $1.2 billion in reserves, and you’re seeing very little internal complaining about FIFA corruption (except from England, which took a courageous stand but is now out in the cold when it comes to FIFA’s internal politics). The best way for FIFA to change would be for its corporate sponsors (Adidas, McDonalds, Budweiser, etc.) to put pressure on the organization to clean itself up. We still haven’t seen much of that.

Gelf Magazine: What would motivate FIFA's corporate sponsors to put pressure on the organization? The fed-up fans themselves?

Grant Wahl: The fans and the media around the world (especially in Brazil and England) have made some headway in putting pressure on FIFA's sponsors. One of my most re-tweeted posts of the year was one in which I included all the FIFA sponsors handles and wrote: "Unhappy with Fifa? Tell the Fifa sponsors." A few sponsors issued public statements of concern about FIFA. What I'd like to know is what they're telling FIFA officials behind closed doors.

Gelf Magazine: Over at ESPN, Jemele Hill basically said that the US women choked in the World Cup final, and that US media did a disservice to women's soccer by coddling them in the aftermath of the loss. Do you think she's right, and does your cover story fit into that "coddling"?

Grant Wahl: I like Jemele and think it’s great that she’s writing about soccer, but I don’t think the US women “choked” in the World Cup final. People have different definitions of the word “choke,” and for me there’s a high threshold to cross (i.e., complete mental meltdown). Did the US back line have a big influence in allowing the first goal? Yes. Should the US coach have used her last sub and put on an extra defender to help close out the game? Probably. Was failing to convert the first three penalties poor execution? Yes. But it’s possible to say all those things and not think the US choked, just as I don’t think the US men choked in the Gold Cup final against Mexico. (Mexico was just better.) “Choking” implies that the victor did little to earn the victory, and I think that’s disrespectful to Japan, which did a lot of things well to win—in the final and in previous games.
In the end, I think it was a memorable World Cup final that the US players will look back on years from now and think they should have won. It’s not complicated: We should cover soccer just as we would cover other sports, and we should cover women the same way we cover men. “Choke” is a term you hear a lot on sports radio. It was something you heard after the final from people who don’t cover soccer very often.

Gelf Magazine: How has the MLS changed since you wrote The Beckham Experiment? What postscript would you add at this point?

Grant Wahl: One big difference is that the additions of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver have made the Pacific Northwest the big success story in MLS these days—not the LA Galaxy, even though it’s the best team in the league so far in 2011. There’s a bit less income disparity between guys like Beckham and the lowest-paid players in that locker room, not least because the minimum MLS salary has nearly doubled from the $17,000-a-year that some of Beckham’s Galaxy teammates were making in ’07 and ’08. MLS teams also have nicer accommodations when they travel on the road now than they had in Beckham’s first couple of years.
The other thing is that the Galaxy was one of the worst teams in MLS during Beckham’s first two seasons, despite having him and Landon Donovan on the same team. Since Bruce Arena took over as coach in late ’08, he has completely turned the Galaxy around. I addressed that change (reaching the ’09 MLS title game) in the new afterword for the paperback of The Beckham Experiment. What’s interesting is that Beckham hasn’t been a central figure on the field in the team’s rebirth. He’s having a pretty good year, but he has yet to make MLS’s Best XI for a season. His biggest impact on MLS remains his signing more than anything he has done since arriving in Los Angeles.

Gelf Magazine: What does the new US men's coach have to do to shake things up and make the Americans more successful on the world stage?

Grant Wahl: The US men have made strides in the last 15 years and earned more respect around the world, but taking the next step—becoming one of the world’s top 10 teams—is going to take a while. Jürgen Klinsmann’s challenge will be not just to get results and motivate his players, but also to help oversee a fundamental change in the way players are developed in the United States. The US is still a bit of a blank canvas in its search for the kind of national style that you see in countries where the game has a longer tradition. Can Klinsmann identify and institute an American style that is both entertaining and winning? It’s a huge task but a fascinating one.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think Klinsmann's American style is going to look like?

Grant Wahl: Right now it's easier to say what it won't look like: Overly defensive. Klinsmann has said time and again that his teams will never play that way. My guess is that his US teams will play somewhat like his German teams did (minus some of the German players' technical skills). That means using speed to strike quickly from the wings and relying more on players with skill at every position.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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