Nine months ago, just before the last election for FIFA president, the United States Soccer Federation publicly endorsed Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan in his race against Sepp Blatter, the longtime and much-maligned incumbent who would go on to win re-election easily. At the time, U.S. Soccer’s endorsement was seen as a bold show of protest against the status quo within the scandal-hit governing body.
This week, with Mr. Blatter suspended and five candidates, including Prince Ali, vying to replace him, U.S. Soccer is planning to avoid a public endorsement. Barring a late change in that strategy, when the delegate from U.S. Soccer enters the voting booth on Friday morning in Zurich — the federation’s representative will be Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer — his choice most likely will be known only to a handful of U.S. Soccer officials.
All the candidates have lobbied the federation for its backing. But while the last election was a clear-cut choice — U.S. Soccer was very much aligned with those who wanted a complete overhaul of FIFA — Friday’s vote, with five candidates running on platforms of reform, makes the dynamics of public support trickier.
This much is clear: U.S. Soccer will vote for either Prince Ali or Gianni Infantino, the secretary general of European soccer’s governing body. Mr. Infantino is seen as one of the two front-runners, but supporting the other — Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain — is a non-starter, according to several federation officials who have been briefed on the organization’s discussions, because of accusations by human rights groups of that he failed to protect soccer players in his home nation from a bloody government crackdown of pro-democracy protests in 2011.
To win, a candidate needs to receive two-thirds of the votes from the 207 eligible nations in the first round of balloting; it is expected that no candidate will reach that number, and on subsequent ballots only a simple majority is required. While some federations do not discuss how they reach a decision on which candidate to support — in many cases, the federation’s president simply decides unilaterally — Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer and a member of FIFA’s governing executive committee, laid out the process in his federation in a recent interview.
Campaign materials from all five candidates have been shared with the 17 members of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors. In recent meetings, brief discussions about the situation have been held, and Mr. Gulati also solicited opinions and feedback from the board via email at the beginning of this month. Several members had questions or thoughts, Mr. Gulati said.
Mr. Gulati informed the board that a final decision would be made this week in Zurich, where U.S. Soccer will have five board members in town for the FIFA congress. With one-third of the voting members present, Mr. Gulati said that the board is satisfied that a substantive dialogue will take place.
In addition to Mr. Gulati and Mr. Garber, the other board members present will be Carlos Cordeiro, the treasurer for U.S. Soccer and a top adviser on international issues; John Collins, a former general counsel for the federation; and Arthur Mattson, who represents the adult amateur players group within the federation.
It is expected that Mr. Infantino will receive significant support within the countries that make up the confederation known as Concacaf, which covers North and Central America, and the Caribbean. The politics of the race, however, and the likelihood of multiple ballots make deciphering allegiances tricky. U.S. Soccer, for example, could support Prince Ali on the first ballot but, if he finishes in third place, then switch to Mr. Infantino on the second ballot, where a winner would most likely be determined.
Mr. Gulati declined to indicate which candidate he expected the federation to support, but he said the board of directors had several concerns it considers paramount. While many of the smaller federations are concerned almost exclusively with how much financing they might receive from FIFA under a particular president, Mr. Gulati said U.S. Soccer was more focused on a broader view.
U.S. Soccer lost a controversial (and tainted) FIFA vote to host the 2022 World Cup, and in the past year the United States Department of Justice has taken an active role in attempting to identify corrupt individuals in the global soccer landscape. Given those realities, it is not surprising that revamping the structure of FIFA is one of the flash points for U.S. Soccer.
“I think proper governance is critical for us,” Mr. Gulati said. “We want to see changes in that on every level, and are making changes within our own organization too.”
He added: “The other issue that is of utmost importance to our board is gender equality. We want to continue to push that issue, and expect to do that regardless of who is going to win this election.”