Alan Rothenberg narrowly won reelection to his second four-year term as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation on Saturday, thanks in large measure to the intervention of FIFA, the sport's international governing body.
Facing a battle for his political life, Rothenberg called in all of his favors. That meant bringing in the most powerful man in soccer, Brazil's Joao Havelange, the FIFA president, who spent the weekend campaigning for Rothenberg.
Even with FIFA's help, Rothenberg did not gain the landslide victory he had predicted. Needing 51% of the vote to win, Rothenberg polled 48.8% on the first ballot. USSF treasurer Richard Groff had 46.9% and USSF executive vice president Hank des Bordes had 4.2%.
During the 20-minute second vote, the huge hotel ballroom grew quiet and tense. "Somebody told me that penalty kicks were bad," U.S. World Cup Coach Bora Milutinovic, a Rothenberg supporter, said during the lull. "This is worse."
Des Bordes withdrew after the first vote and Rothenberg prevailed on the second ballot, 53.4% to 46.6%.
Despite the success of the World Cup, which he helped organize, Rothenberg has been a controversial figure within the USSF during his four-year team. His current difficulty centers on Rothenberg's twin positions as president of the USSF and head of the proposed new professional league, Major League Soccer. Many within the USSF, particularly from the pro division, see this as a conflict of interest.
The pro vote, which delivered the election to Rothenberg in 1990, nearly cost him the presidency this time. The three voting blocks--professional, amateur and youth--split among the candidates. Only one of the four pro leagues voted for Rothenberg. His strength came from the amateur division and Groff took most of the pro vote and some of the youth.
Havelange's unprecedented attendance here has angered some delegates who resent FIFA's interference in the election. Most voters remember FIFA's support for Rothenberg's election in 1990. FIFA's role then consisted merely of a phone call to one presidential candidate, asking him to withdraw from the race.
FIFA's role in this election has been far more open. At a banquet Friday night, Havelange spoke for several minutes and lavished praise on Rothenberg, mentioning him by name some 16 times. On an evening that was meant to celebrate the sport of soccer in the United States, Havelange's nomination speech seemed out of place.
Even Rothenberg admitted that Havelange's dinner speech lacked subtlety and ran the risk of backfiring--USSF delegates might not have appreciated an international body meddling in the internal politics of a member federation.
"It was a little heavier-handed than I would have written it," Rothenberg said. "I was cringing."
Earlier in the day, Havelange had summoned candidate Des Bordes to his hotel room. Speculation was that FIFA would request that Des Bordes, who had little chance to win, withdraw. Des Bordes would not reveal what was said but reiterated late Friday night that he was still in the race.
However, Des Bordes dropped out after the first ballot. Further fueling the FIFA-deal theory, apparently all of Des Bordes' delegates went over to Rothenberg on the second ballot.
Groff, for all of his conciliatory talk after the vote, was clearly angry with the FIFA influence on the outcome.
"FIFA is very insensitive to the operation of individuals with their constituents in the United States Soccer Federation," Groff said. "They didn't need to push so hard. FIFA is so scared to death that if Alan is not in front of MLS, it won't succeed.
"They took that one step further--if Alan is not president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, MLS won't succeed. It was all totally inappropriate."
Havelange and FIFA senior vice president Guillermo Canedo were present to observe Saturday morning's voting, but their interest apparently extended only to observing the presidential election. Havelange briefly addressed delegates before the vote, then left the room immediately after Rothenberg was reelected.
Rothenberg's reelection, whatever it might hold for the future of soccer, does seem to settle the issue of Milutinovic's future. Milutinovic would have been unlikely to remain as national coach had Rothenberg lost the election.