Enter 2016. CONCACAF faces a blockbuster 12 months with the Hexagonal World Cup qualifying games, the centennial Copa América on U.S. soil, and possible Mexican domination in both the Champions League and Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Yet not all is hunky dory at CONCACAF’s headquarters in Georgetown, Cayman Islands.
Early in December, #FIFAGate metastasized when U.S. officials unsealed a new indictment, predominately targeting officials from the South and Central American national federations and soccer conferences.
“The betrayal of trust set forth here is outrageous,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a press conference. “The scale of corruption alleged herein is unconscionable.”
CONCACAF president Alfredo Hawit was among seven CONCACAF officials indicted. It didn’t ill-befit the soccer administrator per se; CONCACAF’s two previous presidents had been banned or indicted, not a particularly fine track record for a non-profit organization.
Longstanding soccer autocrat Jack Warner rose and flourished at CONCACAF to turn corruption from a culture into a cult with his friend Chuck Blazer. The obese huckster then became an FBI mole and delivered incriminating evidence against the skimpy Trinidadian, who is now pleading poverty to fight his extradition to the U.S.
Jeffrey Webb from the Cayman Islands promised to clean up, but the self-proclaimed white knight of transparency and tolerance was arrested by the FBI last May at Zurich’s infamous Bar Au Lac hotel. Webb pleaded guilty to the charges.
The latest round of indictments roiled the upper echelons of CONCACAF and sparked a crisis of leadership within the organization. The FBI ousted the presidents who presided over their fiefdom through lucrative patronage and electoral deceit, but within CONCACAF, battle lines are already emerging over who should be the region’s next leader.
Currently, CONCACAF operates through the members of the executive committee until a new president is elected by member associations at its Congress in Mexico City next May.
It’s more than just an electoral kerfuffle. CONCACAF, founded in Mexico City in 1961, has 41 member associations and is made up of the Caribbean Football Union CFA, the North American Football Union NAFU, and the Unión Centroamericana de Fútbol UNCAF. CFA represents 31 Caribbean soccer federations; NAFU unites the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, and NAFU houses the seven Central American nations.
It pits the might and money of the U.S. against the Caribbean voting bloc at CONCACAF’s one-vote-per- member congress. Warner excelled in exploiting the fractious relationship between the three unions during his 21-year tenure, so much so that he became the kingpin in local and global football politics.
This time, Sunil Gulati might be kingmaker. Gulati, an economics professor at Columbia University, is in his third term as US Soccer president, and joined FIFA’s executive committee in 2011. He has an ally in Canadian Soccer president Victor Montagliani, a potential candidate for the presidency. Gulati and US Soccer might well push Montagliani to run.
NAFU’s third member – and UNCAF – will fall in line with the US’s preferred policy. Former FEMEXFUT president Justino Compean has long been a powerbroker in Mexican soccer – at the Mexico 1986 World Cup local organizing committee, at Televisa, and at FEMEXFUT itself, but the septuagenarian has intimated that CONCACAF’s top-job is not his priority.
FEMEXFUT and Mexican soccer have vested interests in the U.S.: investments in the professional American women’s soccer league NWSL, Champions League’s TV rights, and El Tri’s lucrative tours across the border. They won’t want to upset the United States and forego those entertainment dollars.
Gulati’s leverage is the U.S.’s economic prevalence in the region, but it may not be sufficient to crown his vassal. CFU is not endeared by Gulati’s persona, who for too long circled precariously close to Blazer. It may not be beyond contemplation that the Caribbean consider Gulati an extension of U.S. government. He also represents the U.S.’s thirst to boss the world and (as of late) the global game.
CFU fears marginalization and exclusion from CONCACAF’s decision-making process. CONCACAF’s executive committee didn’t appoint an interim president after Hawit’s indictment, much to the dismay of St. Martins FA president Fabrice Baly, who accused CONCACAF of breaking its own laws in a protest letter. At this stage, CFU may have three candidates for the presidency: Mark Rodrigues, its president Gordon Derrick, who helped Gulati beat Justino Compean to a FIFA executive member seat, and CONCACAF executive member Luis Hernandez.
Last week Rodrigues presented his manifesto and said that he wants “a new CONCACAF.” Notwithstanding such a measly platitude, the electoral circus is bound to be blustery, and so will its implications be – for another storm is brewing under the Caribbean sun.