‘The Beautiful Game’: Sunil Gulati, outgoing president of the U.S. Soccer Federation reminisces about the sport he made a household name

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Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and economics professor at Columbia University. (Photo: Columbia University website)

His “most incredible 24 hours” were when the iconic goal was scored by  Landon Donovan in the last minutes of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, June 23, when the American soccer team beat Algeria 1-0 to win the top spot in Group C, and the crowd went wild; then followed an equally if not more, memorable meeting with Nelson Mandela, recalls Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation for the last 12 years, credited with being possibly the most important man for building the sport in the United States.

Other signature moments in his 12 years, he says, were when Abby Wambach scored an “almost impossible” goal for U.S. women’s soccer in 2011 against Brazil at the FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinals, Gulati remembers; and way back in 1989, when America qualified for the World Cup, the first time in 40 years.

Gulati steps down Feb. 10, when his successor is elected, but he is certainly not ‘riding into the sunset’ from U.S. soccer, his passion of 50-plus years, he told this correspondent in an exclusive interview Feb. 5. He cut his teeth on this game since elementary school in Connecticut, the home of the mad-about-soccer University of Connecticut Huskies. Spending time in the United Kingdom during his teens, also strengthened his passion for the game. He will continue as a board member of the USSF, and FIFA, and on the U.S., Canada, Mexico United Bid Committee for bringing the World Cup to North America.

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Sunil Gulati, left, with former President Bill Clinton, at a June 2010 meeting with Nelson Mandela. (Photo courtesy Sunil Gulati)

“I am focusing right now heavily to bring the World Cup here in 2026,” he said.

Gulati, the first Indian-American to lead USSF, is a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia University. In early December, he put speculation to rest when he announced he would not be in the running for re-election. Sports commentators and experts had said earlier that if he was in the ring, he would win hands down.

Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation, watches the team practicing. (Photo courtesy Sunil Gulati)

“Let’s be honest. Sunil Gulati is the most powerful man” in American soccer, “I don’t see Sunil going anywhere,” and “If Sunil runs … it’s game over,” one commentator said on ESPN, the premier sports channel, when Gulati was yet to declare his intentions.

“He has been instrumental in developing the world’s biggest game in the United States,” Columbia University says about the Allahabad-born Gulati, who is described also as a “popular lecturer” in the field of international economics. Gulati is the Michael K. Dlolias Senior Lecturer in Economics at Columbia.

No doubt he has had his share of defeats. One was the U.S. upset in the qualifying cycle at the World Cup in October 2017, something that had not happened in 30 years, that too at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago, a team that had already been defeated. As a result U.S. ranked 5th out of six teams at the CONCACAF group (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football). It began a rethink on the progress of the sport in the country, and may have had an impact on Gulati’s decision not to run for re-election.

Gulati frankly expresses his disappointment that there were not more wins for U.S. soccer over the years. “Well, we’re supposed to win … it is such a disappointment,” he says, but brightens up speaking about great additions to the game, especially women’s soccer, and how the resources for this are in place, including a 15-member board; and how U.S. soccer is “respected around the world.” He shies away from taking the credit.

“It’s been a great team effort. The sport has grown, and changes have been fueled in many areas,” he said.

Since 1998, there has been no contested presidential election for the U.S. Soccer Federation, but now on Feb. 10, at least 8 candidates are in the running, half of them former professional players and others from the business sector, and two of them women, ESPN reported. “There are establishment candidate and rank outsiders, which makes for a fragmented and fluid vote that seems destined to go to multiple ballots,” said one ESPN report. Gulati has kept out of the fray.

US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, with his wife Marcela and two children. (Photo courtesy Sunil Gulati)

Gulati came to this country with his parents Santosh and Bodh Gulati in the early 1960s. He now lives with his wife Marcela, in New York City. The couple has a son and a daughter.

According to his bio on the USSF website, Gulati has more than 30 years of experience at all levels of soccer in the United States and has helped the sport rise to new heights.

Gulati has led USSF since 2006, and taught at Columbia since 2002. He did his masters in economics from Columbia University, and earned his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University, Pennsylvania.

Re-elected in 2010 and 2014, Gulati was also elected to the FIFA Executive Committee at the CONCACAF Congress on April 19, 2013, in Panama City, Panama, for a four-year term. The CONCACAF is the continental governing body for association football in North America.

In December, Gulati announced he would not be seeking re-election. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it with people in many different positions — many of whom told me I should run,” Gulati is quoted saying in a statement reported on ESPN, “But in the end, I think the best thing for me personally, and for the federation, is to see someone new in the job,” Gulati added. “I decided that both forme personally, and the organization, someone new was needed,” he told this correspondent.

Since the early 1980’s, Gulati and has been “intimately involved” in the rise of the U.S. National Teams to prominence. and apart from improving soccer in the country, has also reached out to “broaden” the organization’s relationships within the international community, the USSF says.

Before taking over as head of USSF IN 2006, Gulati held the position of Major League Soccer’s Deputy Commissioner from its launch until 1999 before becoming the President of Kraft Soccer Properties, a position he served in until 2011. He was U.S. Soccer’s executive vice president from 2000 to 2006.  In the last year of that role, he led an overhaul of U.S. Soccer’s governance institutions and policies.  He has held numerous other positions in U.S. Soccer, including Interim General Secretary, Managing Director of National Teams, Chairman of the International Games Committee, Chairman of the National Teams Committee, and Chairman of the Technical Committee.

On the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors since 1995, Gulati served on the bid committee for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and chaired the U.S. bidding for the 2022 World Cup.

He was also the original Managing Director of U.S. Soccer’s Project 2010 and served as Chairman of U.S. Cup ’92 and U.S. Cup ’93, two events that helped showcase U.S. Soccer’s rise and prepare the Federation for the upcoming 1994 FIFA World Cup, his bio says. Gulati also served on the Board of Directors of FIFA Women’s World Cup USA 1999 and 2003. He has served on several committees at FIFA.

 

 

 

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