Former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati described as key to bringing World Cup 2026 to North America

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

A leading sports columnist and writer says Indian-American Sunil Gulati, former president of the U.S. Soccer Federation was “crucial” in bringing the 2026 World Cup to North America.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times June 23, Kevin Baxter says the U.S. should credit Gulati with the early hard work involved in swinging the vote in favor of the U.S., Canada and Mexico earlier this month.

Though Gulati quit the presidency of USSF in February and was replaced by another Indian-American, Carlos Cordiero, “… if he is the forgotten man behind the bid, his contributions cannot be as easily dismissed,” Baxter notes.

Gulati gave an exclusive interview to News India Times February 4, just days before he stepped down on Feb. 10, dwelling on his 50-plus years of passion for soccer since childhood. He is, possibly, the single most important man in making this little-played sport in the U.S., into a national phenomenon played in almost all high schools in the U.S. and Canada, by both boys and girls, not just in Mexico. Even as he was stepping down, Gulati told News India Times, “I am focusing right now heavily to bring the World Cup here in 2026.”

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

The senior lecturer in Economics at Columbia University, put speculation to rest when he announced last December (2017), that he would not be running for re-election. “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 on ESPN said before Gulati’s announcement.

“He has been instrumental in developing the world’s biggest game in the United States,” Columbia University says about the Allahabad-born Gulati.

Baxter, who interviewed Gulati in Moscow after North America won the 2026 World Cup bid, said the Indian-American began the conversation with officials in Mexico and Canada four years before the bid became a reality.

Furthermore, “It was Gulati who, despite advice to the contrary, insisted on sharing the World Cup with the rest of North America when the bid was launched in April 2017. … And it was Gulati who, after the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were awarded to Russia and Qatar, respectively, in votes that have been investigated for bribery and corruption, insisted that FIFA change its rules before the U.S. would consider bidding for the World Cup again….All those decisions proved prescient,” says Baxter.

His view is supported by Scott Le Tellier, the CEO of the 1994 World Cup, the last to be held in the U.S., who told Baxter, “Sunil Gulati was the genius behind the effort.”

“As president of U.S. Soccer, he forced FIFA’s hand to implement bid reforms that gave us a chance to win. As a member of the FIFA executive committee, he recognized vulnerabilities in a standalone U.S. bid, conceptualized the United bid and struck deals with Mexico and Canada to actively support it,” Le Tellier adds.  Gulati, Le Tellier, and John Kristick worked on the 70,000-page bid for 2026, Le Tellier told Baxter.

Opposition to joining with Canada and Mexico to present the bid came more from the soccer community in the U.S., on grounds that this affluent country to host the 48 teams and 80 games on its own, a position Gulati countered by arguing that a joint effort of the 3 countries would pre-empt rival bids and also be an example of cross-border friendship, Baxter’s article says.

“I’d rather have a 90 percent chance of getting 75 percent of the World Cup than a 75 percent chance of getting 100 percent of it,” Gulati told the USSF board, according to Baxter. “The thought (was) that Canada and Mexico would be great partners and it would help the bid. Which I think it did,” Gulati is quoted saying.

At the critical moment nearing the final decision, Cordiero rejuvenated the bid by reorganizing the bid committee and made each of the presidents of the three countries’ soccer federations split the duties of lobbying FIFA, Baxter says. “In late spring, the three presidents set up shop in London, finishing a sprint that saw them combine to meet with approximately 150 federation presidents or their deputies in the final months before the vote,” Baxter notes, clinching the deal for North America.

The U.S. defeat in the qualifying cycle at the World Cup in October 2017, set the ball rolling for Gulati’s decision to quit a post he had held for ten years.

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.

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 helped the sport rise to new heights.

In his February interview with News India Times, Gulati frankly expressed his disappointed with the October 2017 defeat of the U.S. team. “Well, we’re supposed to win … it is such a disappointment.” But he was enthusiastic about the future. U.S. soccer today, he noted is “respected around the world,” but called the achievement a “great team effort.”

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation website, the ‘United Bid’ is expected to generate more than $14 billion in revenue and $11 billion in profits for FIFA, which will be shared with the 211 FIFA Member Associations, “helping further develop and expand the game of football across the globe.”



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