The recent U.S. Soccer Federation elections did little to support the claim advanced by soccer insiders that the sport’s national governing body has finally risen above petty politics and factional infighting. Quite the contrary: The politics of deal-making and manipulation only rose to a more sophisticated level.
Soccer America magazine devoted an unprecedented amount of space to the election, calling it soccer’s “quadrennial weekend of bloodletting.” It turned out to be an apt description of the activities at a resort hotel in San Diego.
The issue at hand: Would the delegates reelect Alan Rothenberg to another four-year term, thus affirming his stewardship of both the federation and the World Cup, or would they choose USSF treasurer Richard Groff and steer clear of Rothenberg’s apparent conflict of interest as president of the USSF and head of the proposed new professional league?
Both candidates bludgeoned voters with literature filled with personal attacks and charges of impropriety, utilizing the now-standard technique of leaving reams of position papers on hotel tables and in hallways. Much was made of each man’s refusal to shake the other’s hand.
It was all silly except that it was so important to the future of the game in this country and the question of whether soccer’s leaders will be able to capitalize on whatever exposure and momentum remains from last month’s World Cup. Things got out of hand when FIFA President Joao Havelange showed up to throw his considerable weight behind Rothenberg. It was difficult to determine if, for example, the director of youth soccer in central Oklahoma was impressed or offended by the blatant electioneering and FIFA’s bald attempt to influence the election of a member federation.
Rothenberg said FIFA asked to attend and his camp debated whether Havelange’s heavy hand would be an asset or liability. As it had been in 1990, FIFA’s interference in the USSF election was wrong. As messed up as the USSF is, it at least has a right to self determination.
Rothenberg’s campaign rhetoric took an interesting turn during the weekend, and the focus was Major League Soccer.
The issue of conflict of interest between his potential positions as head of the USSF and MLS was often raised and Rothenberg always noted that while MLS needed the support of the federation, the two entities were separate and independent.
Yet, many times during his last-minute campaigning in San Diego, Rothenberg suggested that if not reelected, MLS would fail. Suddenly the connection between the USSF and the pro league was wholly necessary for the future of professional soccer in the United States.
After that thinly veiled threat was tossed into play, delegates who might not have otherwise been disposed to vote for Rothenberg had to set aside their dislike for the candidate and give primacy to the need to support the proposed pro league. Faced with that kind of choice, they cast their votes for MLS, not Rothenberg. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
There is another problem with the MLS-election connection: When the USSF awarded Rothenberg’s group the right to organize a first-division outdoor league, it presumably did so in good faith, with an expectation that the group would make every effort to make MLS a viable league. The USSF turned down other earnest bidders and entrusted the pro league to Rothenberg’s group.
No doubt the other bidding groups would be dismayed to hear Rothenberg’s attitude toward that trust. It seems that the MLS group’s first obligation is to go about finding investors and getting the league off the ground, thus confirming U.S. Soccer’s trust and World Cup’s $5-million “loan.” MLS has no business getting involved in USSF politics. Many in San Diego viewed the connection inappropriate, at best.
Conflict and alienation are not minor concerns for the USSF. It is important for Rothenberg to act to heal the wounds from the last four years and whatever injury caused by the recent campaign.
Also, Rothenberg needs to be more sensitive to conflict-of-interest concerns and to hold himself to a high standard of conduct whenever the USSF considers MLS matters.
Ultimately, the membership of the USSF made the right choice. Rothenberg argued that, for his organization of the World Cup alone, he should have been reelected. He’s right. World Cup’s organizational know-how left a legacy of international respect that should accrue to the U.S. federation. Rothenberg and his staff are responsible for that.
But without the goal of the World Cup, can Rothenberg maintain interest in the mundane chores of running soccer in the United States? Will he have time to devote to anything other than getting his league running? Can he work fairly with the other pro leagues? What will he do for player development, the issue that most soccer insiders believe is the most pressing.