Philly Sports Live

From the PSL Soccer Desk: Un-Sepp-Concious

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Sometime things just come together. I spent Saturday afternoon talking with some very smart people about the many sins of Sepp Blatter, and then Saturday night, just when I thought we might have run out of material, the FIFA president opened his mouth on Al Jazeera. Fitting for the holiday season, he truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Blatter’s latest comments, coming just after a rousing call for the Chinese to throw off the shackles of ping pong would at best be called ill-advised, if not for the fact that given the quality of his adviser’s, this might have been the best they were capable of. The Swiss cartel head expressed his disappointment with the growth of soccer in the US 18 years on from the 1994 World Cup. Said Blatter; “”There is no very strong professional league (in the U.S.),” Blatter said. “They have just the MLS but they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.” This fits with previous comments regarding the US league, most notably his repeated pushes for the USSF to adopt the September to May international schedule. There is little hay left to be made questioning Blatter’s moral and ethics, professional or personal. His transgressions would, in any other context, bar him from coaching a youth team, much less run an international organization overseeing the world’s game. To list them here would prove exhausting to both writer and reader, but for the bullet points I direct you to Dr. Roger Pielke Jr’s paper “How Can FIFA be Held Accountable?” The man is widely considered to be corrupt, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Suffice it to say that Blatter’s motivations for attacking soccer in the United States stem much more from off the pitch, and under the table, factors than any powerful sense of paternal guidance. Leaving these elements to those best equipped to address them, there still remain Blatter’s points to be refuted.

MLS, founded in 1996 as part of the deal to bring the World Cup to the US, has according to Blatter, failed to make itself “recognized by American society.” It is not “a very strong professional league.” They refuse to “play and adapt themselves to the international calendar.” (seriously, the man is obsessed with that last point. It’s as though Eric Wynalda has taken over his mind. He even brought it up to President Obama, who sort of shook his head.) Lets look at Blatter’s charges. (The one’s he’s making. For the other kind, google “ISL Bribery Scandal” or “2011 FIFA election.”)

By the time this sees print, it will be 2013 somewhere in the world. It is not 1996, when professional soccer was a curiosity. It is not 2002, when the league had cut off diplomatic relations with the state of Florida or when three groups collectively owned all the teams. MLS is seventeen teams strong, nineteen if you count Chivas & New England. It’s average attendance per game over the last three years is higher than the NBA or NHL, and considered as percentage of capacity, is higher than Major League Baseball. No, its not the NFL. It’s not even the NCAA, a group FIFA could consider its confrères. I’m sure US Soccer President Sunil Gulati was mortified when, taking the FIFA executive committee on a tour of the stadium sites in advance of the vote on the 2022 World Cup bid, they arrived at FedEx Field, then had to explain that this was the football stadium. No, football. The soccer team, the most decorated in the US in the modern era, plays in a broken down wreck of a structure 10 miles south that still manages, when full, to provide one of the best atmospheres in the world.

MLS is attempting to do something none of the world’s top leagues has ever had to; establish a top flight professional league on a shoestring in the third largest country on earth     in the face of at least five major competitors, all with a century’s head start. The English FA may have had to struggle for dominance with cricket and rugby, but it did so at the dawn of the industrial age, when organized sports were in their infancy. The same can be said for soccer in Spain, where the only obstacle to be overcome was the disdain for all things English, and Germany, where the only competition was gymnastics.

Blatter has often cited the summer schedule, which runs at odds with the rest of the world. The counter argument has always been to try and force FIFA to acknowledge the 800 pound Gorilla in the room, the NFL. Direct competition with American football, not to mention it’s NCAA compatriot, has been the death knell of dozens of leagues. That two MLS sides, Seattle & New England share stadiums with NFL teams, that the schedule would have to revolve around the NFL’s games, that in New England the playing surface would closer resemble the field of Verdun than a world class pitch, is almost irrelevant (and not just because it’s Seattle and New England). The ridiculously small attention that MLS receives in the general sports media would be reduced to nothing, consumed by the constant NFL coverage that manages to swamp even the more established hockey and basketball leagues. FIFA has never sufficiently recognized this.

The idea that money, and with it, quality of players is what holds back MLS, is also misleading. The Russian League is bankrolled by some of the richest men in the world who have bought some of the top players, but it remains the number two sport in Russia behind hockey. If money were simply the issue, Qatar could have purchased a top flight league to go with its World Cup votes. Unlimited spending killed the last top division soccer team, and with it almost any flicker of the beautiful game in the US for a generation. MLS is growing. Slowly, organically, laying a foundation for the long term and building on it every day. It faces challenges not only from the largest professional soccer leagues, but in the NFL the largest sporting entity in the world. It doesn’t need Sepp Blatter’s encouragement. To be honest, it doesn’t need Sepp Blatter. I’m not sure anyone does.

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