Soccer’s scandals poison Gold Cup playing field


By Paul Kennedy, @pkedit

As a child in the early 1960s, I was a college football fan, or as much a college football fan as I could be growing up in New York.

It wasn’t like there was much college football on television or radio or in the papers. My source was Street & Smith’s College Football Yearbook and I created my own little world around college football, spending hours reading page after page of previews about players I’d never seen. I would go in my backyard and make the poses of the players on the cover, the quarterback, poised to throw the football pinned behind his ear, or the halfback, football in one arm and the other arm extended as if to push off a would-be tackler.

For reasons not entirely clear, I was an Alabama fan. Perhaps it was Bama’s flashy quarterbacks, Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler or its pretty cheerleaders. When I think of the Crimson Tide, I think of their coach, Bear Bryant. And when I think of Bear Bryant, I think of his houndstooth hat — who wears hats these days? — and his trooper escort. You can’t watch an SEC game without the coaches being escorted on and off the field by state troopers.

I was thinking about those troopers on Wednesday night.

Where were the troopers to escort Mark Geiger and his officiating crew off the field at the end of the Mexico-Panama game? After all, Atlanta’s Georgia Dome is the site of the SEC championship. Instead of troopers, we had a handful of security guards running to the center circle, their yellow jackets flapping as they tried to catch up to Geiger, who had by then already been surrounded by Panamanians.

The scenes that took place on Wednesday were bad, but they could have been a lot worse. Someone could have been seriously hurt from all the debris being thrown by fans. And luckily Geiger was unharmed. One of the few heroes of the night was Panama captain Roman Torres, the player whom Geiger whistled for the controversial penalty kick and who helped keep the peace.

What was evident from the scenes on Wednesday night in Atlanta and in the next two days after the game was the entire lack of authority. No one to keep the peace at the Georgia Dome and no one to step up and take responsibility. I guess we were foolish to expect better from Concacaf. After all, what can you expect from an organization whose last two administrations have been run, it appears, by crooks who made off with tens of millions of dollars?

We’ve since had Mexico captain Andres Guardado say he thought of purposely missing the tying penalty kick. Could you imagine Lebron James saying a call was so bad he thought of purposely missing the tying free throws in Game 6 of the NBA finals? On Friday, Pedro Chaluja, the president of Panama’s soccer federation, came out and said he thought the semifinal was fixed and demanded an investigation. Who for a minute really believes the game was fixed? But the FIFA and Concacaf scandals have so poisoned the playing field that these statements were out there.

No, there’s not crowd trouble at every Gold Cup match. But the tournament has a long history of incidents. Indeed, the intensity of USA-Mexico rivalry grew out of the Gold Cup and was fueled, on the U.S. side, by the view that Mexican fans at Los Angeles venues had mistreated the U.S. national team and its fans.

What was different about those early days was that few were watching. The Gold Cup is now a big event — the Mexico-Panama fiasco on UniMas was the most-watched program on any network Wednesday night  in the key 18-49 adult demo — and soccer is part the mainstream in political life these days.

Somewhere, I can imagine Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal — from the recent hearing on U.S. Soccer, Concacaf and FIFA — was watching all that’s been going and muttering to himself, “Where’s Gulati?”

Sunil Gulati wears many hats. The hat he was wearing when the Senate subcommittee on which Blumenthal is the ranking member tried unsuccessfully to get him to testify at the hearing was as U.S. Soccer president. Another is as one of three members of a special committee appointed to run Concacaf. Keep it afloat is more like it as it deals with the fallout from the Federal indictments involving its last two presidents, Jack Warner and Jeffrey Webb, the plea agreement involving its now former marketing agency Traffic and the myriad tax IRS issues dating back to its failure to file tax returns from 2004 through 2010.

After Saturday’s third-place game, Gulati spoke for the first time about the events that took place on Wednesday night. He looked on the positive side: “You saw something else come out of Wednesday which is almost never the case: an official and an organization admit there was an error. Concacaf did that, and Mark did that. He’s an excellent referee who has refereed at top level — he refereed a World Cup final at the [2011] U-20s — and he accepted the fact that he made some mistakes that impacted the game.”

The end game in all this for Gulati is to one day bring the World Cup back to the United States. The plan was to play here in 2022. FIFA gave that World Cup to Qatar. But I can imagine a year or two from now FIFA asking the U.S. government for its support to host the 2026 World Cup.

For past World Cups, FIFA wouldn’t ask for support, it would demand concessions from host countries on all sorts of tax and customs issues. Until recently, government officials like Senator Blumenthal would have probably been warm to the idea of a World Cup coming here.

The problem is, these same government officials may tell FIFA, based on what some of they’ve been seeing, they want nothing to do with it or its sport. And who could blame them?

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