Rosemary’s Baby and the Bathwater

USSF/SUM/MLS “leaders”: what makes you think we want any of your historical knowledge in our soccer future?

by Mel Brennan

From 2006 to whenever the next U.S. Soccer President is elected, Sunil Gulati presided over, advanced and celebrated a particular vision of soccer in the United States.

It included suing the union representing the world champion United States women’s national team, being subject to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) federal wage discrimination complaint from those same victorious women, failing to dismantle – or even disenculturate – pay-to-fail in youth development nationally and extending and maintaining working friendships – at minimum – with criminally indicted – or, like Chuck Blazer, my former boss, straight-up criminals who pled guilty – soccer leadership glitterati around the globe.

He – and his hand-picked heir apparent, Soccer United Marketing’s Kathy Carter (aka, “the money”) – will work very hard to tell you about all the ostensible gains they’ve made while in the driver’s seats at our soccer federation (ours because it operates with the mandate of our elected officials, not because we’ve ever been owner/operators, but that’s coming).  But what they won’t tell you is the damned glissade of broken culture that makes those “gains” short-term at best, and steps directly backward at worst.

Time and again on this channel I have advocated for twin pillars of soccer (of all sport, actually); yes, the economic activity that comes from POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT is important, but cannot be the singular most important thing…as compelling as delivering in a sporting way at the highest level is (and will remain), nothing that leaves the vast majority of its participants behind by age 33 can be deemed so in healthy human culture.

No, a concomitant and equivalently intense commitment to the other pillar of soccer, PLEASURE AND PARTICIPATION SPORT, must be developed, invested in, maintained, propagated, and fully delivered into United States soccer ways of life for the sport to thrive and survive over the long term.  This is where seeing the world, and everything in it, as ultimately economic, fails us completely.  Sunil, a World Bank economist, unsurprisingly, and his inheritors can do nothing but; the next President of U.S. Soccer must be able to say clearly that there are lots of things in our daily ways of life that either have INFINITE value in any economic framework (making that framework less than useful), or stand outside it.

How do we ensure that, to give just one of so many examples, mothers and fathers get time with their daughters and sons in the context of enjoying their lives in, on and around a soccer pitch?  Forget “the game” as its currently fired at us in suburbs around the nation…just think about kicking a ball, together as your town’s soccer proponents, on a Sunday afternoon.  That type of “quality time,” for those kids and parents and guardians and even those who just bear witness to it, echoes across eternity.  The delta between caring about the people and caring about the outcome is found in our embrace, individually and systemically, of these moments and opportunities.  They have INFINITE value to our society, the health of our culture, and create sporting spaces worth caring about.

Today we have over 3 million young people playing in spaces that aren’t necessarily worth caring about.  When we have enough of them, we’ll have a sport that isn’t worth participating in.  Think about that the next time you see parents arguing with each other over a match of ten-year olds, or screaming at the ref, or – as my wife and I witnessed – giving their kid approval to harm another kid over a perceived earlier foul.

When the baby resembles Rosemary’s baby, it’s time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We need an entirely new vision, one that will naturally answer both the question “what is U.S. soccer culture” in a way that matters, and answers the more important question “what difference did soccer make in the U.S.?”

Forget Gulati.  Forget Carter.  Look to truly new ideas that change the landscape for us and our children and deliver soccer ways of LIFE that are worth caring about.

 

Advertisements

I’m Running For U.S. Soccer President

SPOILERS below…

Picture1

No, I’m not.  But if I were, this is what my platform would look like, and I encourage you to demand a similar platform from each candidate asking for your support:

  • Five Clear Commitments:
    • Power to the People
    • Equity and Equality
    • Two Pillars of Soccer
    • Play as a Human Right
    • Real-time Transparency

 

  • Power to the People
  • Revision or Abolition of Bylaws 212, 231, 232, 302, 303, 311, 312, 313, 314, 321, 322, 323, 401, 402, 411, 412, 413, 414, 415, 431, 501, 502, 512, 513, 531, 541, 542, 701, 702, 703, 705, 706, 801, 802, 803
  • Deep inclusion of citizen voices and votes
  • Reduction or elimination of power-retaining mechanisms
  • Full deployment of power-diffusing mechanisms
  • Results/Science-based accountability across elected period
  • Transparency, public examination of documents

 

  • Equal pay for Men and Women
  • One transparent “pot” of sponsorship and competitive dollars
  • Title IX-aligned equity across all facets of the national program (monetary, fields, resources, lodging, training)
  • Open access to USSF resources regardless of race, color, gender/gender identification/gender fluidity, creed, religion, age, disability, and genetic information

 

  • Two Pillars of United States Soccer
  • Pleasure and Participation Soccer
  • Fully resourced approach to the deployment of soccer as lifelong learning and leisure tool
  • All-Access commitment
  • Sport as a lifelong learnable and permanent pleasure toolset
  • Deep community engagement (focus on vulnerable areas)
  • Multiple forms of the sport (futsal, soccer gaming, etc.)
  • Power and Performance Soccer
  • A commitment to technical excellence (Technical Director)
  • A commitment to competing against previous highest results
  • A commitment to competing at all appropriate levels
  • A commitment to NOT competing at inappropriate levels
  • Management of any deviant over-conformity to the sport ethic through culturally competent leadership

 

  • Play as a Human Right
  • Delivering a complete commitment to Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and extending those rights to persons engaged in soccer across their entire lives, through the revision and re-construction of the programs of US Soccer:
  • The right to rest
  • The right to leisure
  • The right to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to age
  • The right to participate freely in cultural and artistic life of sport (soccer)
  • The right to the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity of all kinds as they relate to soccer

 

  • Real-time Transparency
  • Real-time access to information and happenings (all US Soccer data online, free, open-sourced and accessible; all U.S. Soccer Federation meetings, sessions, committee meetings, elections and other official business broadcast in video and audio, live, with English and Spanish translations)
  • An end to secret balloting
  • Auditing: An external examination of an organisation’s accounts, processes, functions and performance to produce an independent and credible assessment of their compliance with applicable laws and regulations, with term limits of one audit organization per state per audit to limit corruptible features
  • Automatic Exchange of Information (AIE) with public servers regarding USSF assets, dividends, interests, royalties, salaries, contracts agreements and all other matter
  • Strengthening of ethics rules, Conflict of Interest rules and the USSF Code of Conduct; transparent posting of officials’ ethics and conflict dossiers and responses for public consumption
  • An end to clientele-ism through systemic term limits for partners, sponsors, and organizations offering goods/services to USSF
  • Zero-tolerance policy toward formation of internal or external cartels; public transparency on all contracts with USSF
  • Deep disclosure of all financial products (matches, tournaments, etc.)
  • Net Promoter, Outcome and Compliance score systems established, scores published, and minimums required for officials to maintain positions
  • USSF signatory to conventions and agreements reflective of the above-mentioned values
  • Permanent debarment lists
  • Usable disclosure; disclosure in the formats easily understood by laymen, with all data supporting such disclosure available in simplest format for public members to go deeper in their analysis/criticism
  • Enhanced due diligence including validation and documentation by third parties concomitant to the transparency commitments mentioned above
  • Zero tolerance on facilitation
  • Governance model that seeks to always update tools that ensure a USSF governance that is participatory, accountable, transparent, efficient, responsive and inclusive, respecting the rule of law and minimizing opportunities for corruption.

First Principles: The Platform of the Next President of U.S. Soccer

Sharing three things to which any serious candidate for American soccer’s highest office must commit if soccer is to matter at all in the decade to come, and beyond.

by Mel Brennan

(1) Sport in general – and soccer in particular – will only be what we make it; we can only make of it what we can see.  Thus, we can afford no soccer mythology, only organizational transparency.  The next U.S. Soccer President must be a servant-leader in forging change in this area.

The godfather of sport sociology, Jay Coakley of the University of Colorado, submits that three things make up what he calls the Great Sport Myth (GSM):

  1. The pervasive and nearly unshakable belief in the inherent purity and goodness of sport;
  2. That the purity and goodness of sport is transmitted to those who participate in or consume it;
  3. That sport inevitably leads to individual and community development.

In the decade and a half since my thirty months with CONCACAF and FIFA, I have worked with investigative journalists, media outlets soccer fans and soccer critics to disabuse everyday people of the idea that soccer, on its own, generates good, pure outcomes.

Soccer is run by human beings.  By men, particularly.  And their effort to date must be found wanting.

The levels of corruption I and others revealed were unparalleled in the history of international sport governance;  the Salt Lake scandals of the International Olympic Committee were small change compared to the deep, historic and abiding dishonesty, bribery, crimes, exploitation, extortion, fraud, graft, nonfeasance, malfeasance, nepotism, crookedness, demoralization, misrepresentation, payoffs, payola, racketeering, shadiness, and Manichean venality of soccer’s leadership since at least 1970.

These truths, combined with the pervasiveness of the GSM, allowed decades of damage to the world’s most prolific sport, all under the guise of something good and pure.  The GSM stood in-between our natural proclivity towards curious inquiry, stood in the way of us looking at – and demanding we can look at – the day-to-day operations of something that claims to represent us.  We abandoned transparency to myth.

Never again.  And “never again” must mean that we look critically at what we mean, want and expect when we say “U.S. Soccer,” and “U.S. soccer,” because they are, in fact, at least two different things.  And the next President must be able to tell that difference.

(2) Sport in general – and soccer in particular – must be developed with two pillars in mind; one is what Coakley has called “power and performance sport,” the other “pleasure and participation sport.” Both have infinite value, but only the latter will apply to most participants most of the time.  The next U.S. Soccer President must be an expert-seeker in forging change in this area.

Three years ago, when I wrote “A Better FIFA” on these pages, I shared an image I’ll share again here:

betterfifaframework_zpsef789afb.png

As you can read, these two pillars describe entirely different ways of engaging the sport of soccer.  Only one, the pleasure and participation framework, ensures a lifetime of enjoyment with the sport.  But it cannot allow us to test ourselves and our limits the way the narrow time we have in our lives with power and performance soccer can.  One platform can be a form of “pressure cooker” out of which skills can be forged, interdependent units can thrive and glorious victories achieved.  The other sees us as engaged with soccer at 70 years of age as we were at age 7.  Both are required in the American soccer experience for it to be future-proofed against the hoary vagaries and narrowing of intent that outside forces place upon sport in America (and thorughout the world).  The U.S. can lead here, delivering a future form of the sport that sets the standard for others to follow – our favorite thing to do – but it needs the right leader, one who can see this future, now.

Both frameworks on sport’s possibility must be fully embraced at the beginning for U.S. Soccer to have a foundation from which to proceed.  Combine that with the best of what’s known by scientists on child development and sport – such as the work found here – and both pillars get transformed in terms of the lived experiences of youth 0-5, 6-8, 9-12 and 13-17.  Expertise on child development is severly lacking in the coaching regimes found in and among youth soccer communities today.  It’s the why behind why, for example, kids the ages of 4-5 run aroud playing “beehive soccer,” to the chagrin of coaches, parents and others who expect more without knowing the science, and changing both their expectations and the games they place in front of kids accordingly.

(3) Forms of soccer in the United States must be made permanently and robustly accessible to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations of the nation, particularly keeping track of the access of poor and working class communities of color.  The next U.S. Soccer President must be a civil rights speaker in forging change in this area.

There are, in 2017, about 75 million children in the United States, broken down relatively evenly at about 25 million kids across three major child development “gateways” in terms of age (not the only way to measure development, or even the best way, but I digress).  As the National Center for Children in Poverty reveals:

…Children under 18 years represent 23 percent of the [U.S.] population, but they comprise 32 percent of all people in poverty. Many more children live in families with incomes just above the poverty threshold. Among all children, 44 percent live in low-income families and approximately one in every five (21 percent) live in poor families. Being a child in a low-income or poor family does not happen by chance. Parental education and employment, race/ethnicity, and other factors are associated with children’s experience of economic insecurity…

How can sport insert itself into this damning dynamic?

The better candidate for U.S. Soccer President would respond “How can it not?”

The health and well-being benefits of soccer in particular are well documented.  Connecting vulnerable communities – and, most notably, the children of those communities – with a form of recreation, movement, ethical sampling and social connection like soccer transforms lives.

That’s the work soccer can do in the U.S.; that must be the Worthy Work of U.S. Soccer.

So…a servant-leader, an expert-seeker and a civil rights speaker…that’s a meaningful remit.

Does your favorite candidate have a clear and measurable platform to get us there?

Or are we stuck in the old mythology of sport, unable to see clearly to the next milestone ahead?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

A Footballing Declaration of Independence from FIFA

When in the Course of sporting events, it becomes necessary for the stakeholders of football – everyday people – to dissolve the political bands of FIFA which have disconnected them one with another.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Sporting Rights, that among these are a Sporting Life, Sporting Liberty and the pursuit of Sporting Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Sport Governance is instituted among the People, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Sport Governance becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Sport Governance, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Sporting Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Sport Governance bodies long established, like FIFA, should not be changed for light and transient causes; but when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Objects – Robbing the Sport and Elevating Themselves Above It – evinces a design to reduce them under the absolute Despotism of a Havelange or a Blatter, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Sport Governance, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of the People; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Sport Governance. The history of the President, Executive Committee and Congress of FIFA is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over the People. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

  • No Voting by the People / No Consent of the Governed
  • No Accountability through Voting of National Football Officials to the People
  • Secret Elections
  • Secret Pay
  • Substandard Pay to Women
  • No version of the Sport for the Differently-Abled
  • No Commitment to the Pillars of Sport Beyond Commercial Power-and-Performance Sport
  • No Real-time Transparency of Fund Disbursement

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by silence from FIFA. The Sporting Princes of FIFA – the FIFA President and the FIFA Executive Committee –  whose characters are thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, are unfit to be the sporting leaders of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our congressional footballing brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their Congress to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over football. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in Status Quo, in Change Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United Football Citizens of the World, in General Congress, Assembled Online, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of the Sporting World, solemnly publish and declare, That Football ought to be Free and Independent of FIFA; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the Federation Inernationale de Football Association, and that all political connection between them and FIFA and its National Associations and various governing bodies, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent football citizens, they have full Power to pay men and women equally, value participation sport more than performance sport, contract and establish commerce with entities who transparently support democratic distribution of football resources with an eye toward the most vulnerable, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent football citizens may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, I begin by pledging to each of you my Sporting Life, my Sporting Fortune and my sacred Honor.

—– Mel Brennan

Football – or soccer – is our sport.  It is a global phenomenon.  It is democratic in its distribution, but no in its governance.  That is, football is organically found in every corner of the globe, played by all kinds of people; however its leadership is a narrow slice of those people, and its governance doesn’t include those people at all.  We are citizens of no nation, football constituents with no Congress.  We make up everything that matters about the beautiful game, but have zero say in it.

For those of us around the world who see football as the most democratic form of sporting expression in the history of the world, that type of disenfranchisement is intolerable.  And as media outlets ramp up their coverage of the FIFA “election,” the gap between what happens at that event and what football’s citizens need is ever widening.

FIFA has shown at every turn that they cannot be reformed.  Won’t you commit to, and share, the above Declaration?

Pledge YOUR sacred honor to a new football governance, today.

A Better FIFA

“…While the FIFA witnesses at trial boldly characterized their breaches as “white lies,” “commercial lies,” “bluffs,” and, ironically, “the game,” their internal emails discuss…“how we (as FIFA) can still be seen as having at least some business ethics” and how to “make the whole f***-up look better for FIFA.”(1)

– Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York

 

 

“You do realize that you’re represented by soulless cash whores? And when I say that I don’t mean any disrespect to actual whores.”

– Bill Maher

 

When one searches “FIFA corruption,” in quotes, it takes Google .24 seconds to generate over a quarter of a million results, 10 times more than “Congressional corruption,” and 20 times more than “sport corruption” generally.  Yes, its clear; the world governing body of the world’s sport has a three-pronged problem – corruption of people, of programs and of purpose.  And everyone knows it.

Out of those 250,000 results, the one that captures most compellingly and succinctly the problem is the submission of one John Oliver (thanks, John); and he’s right.  We who live to appreciate football as, on occasion, the perfect venue for nigh-perfect human kinetic expression know we cannot reconcile that love with how the sport is led today.

oliverfifa

John Oliver, on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, this past Sunday.

 

And it is out of our own inconsistency, and reflective of that tension, that I ask you to meditate on the following alternative version of FIFA, and its set of alternative inviolate principles, as a launching point for robust discussion about serious change:

betterfifaframework

Pillars, Pathways and Deliverables – A Better FIFA.

 

THE TWO PILLARS OF SPORT

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”
-Joseph Chilton Pearce

 

It’s an easy assertion to make that sport is socioculturally relevant; that, in many societies, mores, folkways, taboos, norms and even laws are informed by sport. We see it in the gathering we do on Super Bowl Sunday, or the early morning trek we make (in North America) to pubs to see and fellowship around Premier League matches.  Or in this.

When it comes to thinking through sport and its role in society, the Godfather of this work is Jay Coakley.  His seminal text, Sports in Society, is on its eleventh edition, reflecting decades of asking the questions “Does sport reflect us,” and “if so, how?”  Deploying a global and issues-based tack, Jay offers up potent models to understand the type of sport – and the type of sport governance – we might seek.  One of his most powerful is this contrast and comparison between what Coakley calls “power and performance sport” – the typical surface-skill-elites-than-dismiss-them-by-age-30 form we see today, and “pleasure and participation sport”; a way of connecting everyone with a sport across their lifetime in ways that enhance well-being…a way of delivering world football to which FIFA has been – in its thinking and its practice – totally ignorant.

As illuminated in the above graphic, FIFA as currently constituted really only acts as “steward” of one pillar of the sport of football, and it does not even do that with credibility.  While there’s no doubt that we want power and performance sport in our lives, a better FIFA would seek to integrate aspects of the second pillar – the participatory model of sport – both into the performance model and across its own remit to celebrate this game with the world.  The participation model does a better job of including all of us, across our lifecycle, in the sport we love.  It properly locates opponents not as enemies, but as others against whom we can test and measure ourselves.  And, cruically, it organizes sport not hierarchically but democratically – that is, reflective of the interests, hopes, concerns, expectations and aspirations of most of us, most of the time, while in every instance keeping track of the humanity of the most vulnerable.

This type of approach – being committed to integration of both pillars of sport – the power/performance pillar and the pleasure/participation one – could be a foundation for a new FIFA.  Indeed, I would argue that to prevent deviant overconformity to a (sometimes in our cultures sick, failed and crippled) sport ethic, governing bodies like FIFA must surface an expression of their sport that is 21st Century – a true integration of the best characteristics of each pillar, in ways that ensure we celebrate competition replete with the knowledge that we locate such expression within a wider commitment to well-being for all.

 

THE TWO PATHWAYS OF SPORT

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The mechanisms that move a better FIFA to engage, connect and integrate the best of the two pillars of sport include a commitment to servant-leadership and capacity-building.  Many know that Robert Greenleaf launched the modern approach to servant-leadership with his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”  Few focus, as we will, on the essay he wrote two years later: “The Institution as Servant.”  Directed to businesses, universities and churches, this second essay allowed Greenleaf to distill his approach thus:

“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other,
is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely
person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions—often large, complex,
powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to
be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative
opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve
and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative
forces operating within them.”(2)

Servant-leadership in this institutional context is easily contrastable with what we know about today’s FIFA.  A better FIFA isn’t about becoming organizing oneself and one’s institutions to become Ken Basinger’s “Mr. Ten Percent.” Its about a future FIFA contributing to the good society through its people as servants, and, importantly, through the manifest forces that shape the actual institution into one that performs as global servant as a requisite state of being.  If we both wrestle with Coakley’s assertions and Greenleaf’s ostensible outcomes – a more just and loving society; a society providing more creative opportunity for its people; more competent and less corrupt institutions as servants – we come to the conclusion that an entirely new FIFA is required.  One that, if stakeholders in world football were to even accommodate a reformist approach, would require such “reform” as to render any new FIFA unrecognizable as compared to eh one we suffer today.

Yet a better FIFA could, in a servant orientation, build multiple types and forms of capacity among its member nation institutions and populations, moving this vision of FIFA to reflect tripartite levels of potential impact: individual, institutional and societal.  Imagine the power of soccer to forge the space to, as Ernesto Sirolli says, shut up and listen to local needs as opposed to, as we see today, funneling money to, supposedly, the current FIFA “GOAL Programme” to build more unsustainable pitches.  Deploying world football as the lens through which lifelong learnables are shared is powerful cultural content by which a real impact can be had.  And measured.

 

DELIVERABLES AND EXECUTION

“Dad, even if the current FIFA criminals go to jail or get removed…what about FIFA ensures they won’t bring on new folks just like the old folks?  What ensures we won’t have another 3-4 decades of the same old thing?”

– My son, silencing me in early 2013

 

Consider the deliverables, the outcomes, of a better FIFA’s commitment to the integration of the two pillars of sport by values-based servant-leadership and capacity-building:

Organization

First the easy stuff:  I think a better FIFA would include four confederations, 50 nations each.  Europe, Africa, Asia/Oceania and the Americas.  A Cup of Nations with eight teams from each confed.  A bigger celebration/payday/trophy for the Fair Play team than the tournament winner (paying service to the notion that how you go about your play is more important than being lucky/skilled enough to make it through and win the Final).  Disagree?  Well, for our discussion back and forth to even matter, we need the second, harder thing: a FIFA better organized to persist in service to democratic expressions of the sport.

The first thing current FIFA President Sepp Blatter did after surviving the challenge of his number two, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, in 2002 was to ensure that the agenda of the Executive Committee included an augmentation of his own power, and a diminution of the power of the General Secretary.  Actually, that was the second thing.  The first thing was to rid himself of Zen-Ruffinen.  All this, of course within a wider context a FIFA today of faux-democracy; of ensuring that nations with, in certain contexts, a “one nation/one vote” sense of the democratic perceive that “democracy” across the organization, when, in practice, the Executive Committee (and, really, the President and the Emergency Committee, for all the decisions that drive resources) shapes the present and future of football.

A better FIFA would consider effective models of organizational democracy across not only sport but global and regional governance, as well as the best models from business, government and non-profit work.  Effective how?  In a few measurable ways.  One major area is inclusion and accountability.  Here in the United States, unless I connect myself with the Byzantine architecture of US Soccer’s intersticed governing bodies, I have no voice in how soccer resources are deployed here.   The bylaws, policies, membership types, membership classifications and fee-/process-driven minutiae serve as much to exclude voices as to organize them…a sort of “play our way or not at all” infrastructure that definitively excludes or marginalizes any submission that the structure itself is flawed.  A better FIFA would organize members in ways that demanded and ensured an ongoing maximization of stakeholders, of voices, in ways that reflected FIFA’s necessary status as servant to those voices.

Transparency

Brennan’s First Law is the Law of transparency: in any organization, anywhere you as a person standing external to that organization cannot easily see?  That’s where all the lying, cheating and stealing is taking place; in other words, moral hazard and organizational fidelity are not the result of a bastardized ethics and governance reform process.  A better FIFA would exhibit transparency in the following ways:

– “Anyone can see” : from online, real-time financial and budget data to open publishing of all salaries (a la many universities, like this one in Maryland) to plain language bylaws to “open source” results evaluation to deploying tools to bridge the digital divide to live streaming of all meetings – subverting Brennan’s First Law with seeking out and exposing those places of darkness and filling them with both light and making their walls glass…that’s the beginning of transparency.

 

Education

Moving beyond a CIES framework (CIES is a FIFA-originated notion of academic sports studies as patronage opportunity and consultant revenue funnel) where FIFA VPs like Austin Warner can slot in “girlfriends” into so-called academic slots, a better FIFA would tie its role in education to the capacity-building and servant-leadership pathways described earlier, becoming the solution to questions like “How do sport organizations offer up learning and career tracks that are outward-facing and about the needs of communities and other stakeholders?”

In addition, FIFA sad sack of responses to the scourge of racism – a communique from Blatter with the imprimatur of a star footballer lamenting racism in the game and vowing to address it – does, well, little to address it.  A better FIFA would allocate resources to move into spaces where this continues to be an issue and deliver educational seminars that not only were, again, outward-facing, but also which would be a weight/requirement connected to event participation, hosting etc., should that model of experiencing the sport even be continued.

Girls and Women (and the differently-abled, and the homeless, and…)

On and on.  We know that former and current FIFA leadership simply fail to respect female athletes; that tighter shorts and promoting women supine and sweaty is the mindset of FIFA leadership.  If you saw the ways in which women were not only located positionally at CONCACAF – the North American confederation of FIFA – but culturally, you’d have likely left sooner than I did (continue to check in on this blog to see the stories of some of these women during my time in and among this group).   But with adultery replete throughout the leadership, and with staff recognizing that “hooker hour” at any tournament meant the period early in the morning when all the escorts would descend, almost en masse, from hotel floors where football’s leadership would exclusively stay…we need a better way forward.

Freeing up opportunities for women not only to play and receive equal pay but to lead – how many women are on the FIFA Executive Committee today? – sets the tone for the inclusion of persons through multiple lenses of diversity: gender, thought, ability (as in differently-abled)…you know, like something authentically democratic.

 

This is no manifesto; these are approaches and ideas that can be damned, abandoned, amplified and/or explored.  We need a better FIFA.

And we are the leaders we’re looking for who can, and must, build it.

CONCA…WHO?

1 FEBRUARY 2001

PALAIS DES FESTIVALS – CANNES – FRANCE

Walking and talking in Cannes not with the football glitterati, but with football’s working men and women, I remembered that soccer was culture. Not in the U.S., yet, to be sure, but certainly damn near everywhere else on the planet. With London-born Nigerian N. M. “Gus” Nwanokwu on my left, pontificating about the failure of UEFA transfer regulations, and Nigerian-born Londoner Ade Fabunmi-Stone on my right retorting that CONCACAF, CAF and FIFA don’t do nearly enough to move in the lives of young people, I could hardly think about what I had experienced on this whirlwind trip.

It began with a ghost flight.

My Air France flight had, tops, 5% of seats filled, so those of us on the flight had the services of the entire plane to ourselves. I talked with the flight attendants and pilots about – what else? – world football. Neither of the pilots could understand how I ever became a PSG fan (“You know Marseille is for the blacks, the underclass, the poor?” the co-pilot intoned, to which I responded that my PSG fandom was initially about George Weah but ultimately became about the city of Paris and my dreamy love for it), but they, along with the flight attendants, had an awful lot to say about FIFA.

“Voleurs!” offered one attendant. Thieves.

“Pourquoi?” I asked. Why?

“They take and take and take, and what do we get?” the attendant switched freely between languages, and could tell that English, and not French, was native to me. “Nothing. Nothing for the people.”

“Meh,” said another attendant, who had joined us just aft of the cockpit, blustering through pursed lips in that peculiar style of speaking the French have. “FIFA gives what they can; societies are to blame. But football? Non.”

“Have you heard of CONCACAF?” I offered.

“Non,” they both said in unison. I just shook my head.

It was that way everywhere, a truth I began to understand upon not just my arrival in Cannes, but even before that. There was just no status, no juice – outside smallish, proper soccer circles in the States – that came with being a part of CONCACAF; within those North American circles, however, you were seen as definitively internationalist in perspective and insight. You were no longer expected to spring from just a U.S.-centered worldview.

What I did find in Cannes was that there was similarly no juice, whatsoever, in saying “I’m in Special Projects with CONCACAF.” People just stared at you like you said nothing at all, until you continued on to submit that you were in town for Football Expo. Then they sent you on your way, locating you in and among the typified sport culture that was football in Europe. For most, it was similar to asking for directions to an Egg Convention: eggs, a common, regular part of life. That’s football most places.

The night Football Expo started, I discovered that most features found in the world can be found in a gathering of folks in world football. Wondering where the true charity work going on in football is? Let me introduce you to Doug Myers, who found me that first night and told me everything there was to know about his International Soccer Exchange Program. On the lookout for hustlers? Gus and Ade fit that bill; not that they were looking to hustle someone, per se; rather, they were hustling for business. Being where the ostensible action was, so to speak.

I peeled off from Gus and Ade, saying my goodbyes, and headed to Conference 6.

IS MODERN FOOTBALL IN DANGER OF LOSING ITS APPEAL? the signboard outside the conference hall doors submitted.

“Not for me,” I murmured to myself. Having just begun a career in world football days ago, I was in no mood to consider the notion that I had gotten in on the down side of a football bubble. Indeed, I was here, in the main, to hear from an American soccer expert I thought compelling, and to see if the on-stage discourse was as news-breaking as had been some of the other, earlier panels.

On the morning of day one – following a glittering reception the night before at the Carlton Intercontinental, where I met Gus and Ade – a panel called THE TRANSFER REVOLUTION…AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR CLUBS was barely held on-task by superb moderator Keir Radnedge as Arsenal FC Vice-Chairman David Dein worked fascinatingly hard to derail the panel with angry pontifications about doom and gloom as they related to Real Madrid’s cultivation and signing of young French star Nicholas Anelka. Dein’s anger at not only Madrid’s signing of the player, but what he thought that meant for the death of football, was laughable. As a PSG fan, I could have leveled the same charge at Arsenal when Anelka left Parc Des Princes, but if a player wants to leave…let him leave. Dein obviously didn’t feel the same way, and his fiery commentary made sports-page news around the globe the next day.

Would this final panel be as tasty? I entered the hall to find out.

On the FOOTBALL LOSING ITS APPEAL? panel were broadcasting and commentary genius Martin Tyler, who, regrettably, I never did get to meet; Gerry Boon, from Deloitte; and three people I did get to rap with: Keith Cooper, the Voice of the Twenty-Four and of FIFA; Rogan Taylor, representing Liverpool University and an academic take on football I found boorish; and, finally, American Lynn Berling-Manuel, president and publisher of SOCCER AMERICA, one of the few legit U.S. magazines sharing the excitement of the sport from my own, homegrown, perspective. I always found Berling-Manuel’s commentary and submissions cogent and insightful, and looked forward to talking with another American about world football after hearing from her.

I don’t remember a thing anyone said, but I do remember what happened afterwards.

In the audience I found Berling-Manuel talking happily with who ended up being Hank Steinbrecher, formerly Secretary General of the United States Soccer Federation, from 1990 to 2000, and there representing his newly formed “consultancy,” Touchline. I approached as he and Berling-Manuel’s conversation and body language indicated that they were wrapping up.

 

“Ms. Berling-Manuel?” I asked.

She turned graciously. “Hi, are you are?”

“Mel Brennan, newly with CONCACAF. I don’t have a business card, but…”

“Hank; good to meet you,” Steinbrecher gruffed good-naturedly, handing me his business card and saying quick goodbyes before moving to catch someone else up the aisle.

Proudly I continued with Berling-Manuel: “I work for Chuck Blazer.”

Berling-Manuel’s eyes clouded, just for an instant, her expression becoming dour and taut. “Chuck, huh…?” she said with intent. “Chuck is an…interesting guy.”

With that, she moved up the aisle, and went about the rest of her life.

But her submission has stayed with me for the remainder of my own. Something about the way her face and tone changed led me to believe two things: one, that there was a whole host of stories behind that one phrase; two, that working for the world’s most prolific sport wouldn’t always bring a smile to people’s faces…that sometimes, football, and its leadership, really pissed people off.

HOW TO GET A JOB IN WORLD FOOTBALL – AKA “LUCK+TENNESSEE WILLIAMS=CONCACAF”

apprentice, n. A learner of a craft; one who is bound by agreement to serve an employer in the exercise of some profession with a view to learn its details and duties, in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition.

~~~~~~

 

JANUARY 17th, 2002
DOWNTOWN MARRIOTT – SOUTH FIGUEROA ST. – LOS ANGELES

As I turned the corner, I couldn’t help but smile; working for CONCACAF is freaking heaven.

“That was the Sexy M.F.!” I blurted, bursting into the room. “Can you believe it?”
Felice whipped her head around, her raven hair following. “Who?”

“The sexy M.F.!,” I reiterated.

Confusion raced across Felice’s face, her pale features the most elegant chisel, while she pondered my outburst. At other times, times when she laughed, all that softened, but never did she look like she hadn’t been through the NYC/L.A. ringer; Felice was a veteran; scene-wise if not streetwise in that trust fund way about both coasts and their peril, their adventure.

A cute crease in her forehead revealed itself when she didn’t like or get what someone was saying, I noted.

“The sexy mother********er from Prince’s SEXY M.F. video” I persisted. “I just passed her in the hall. You sexy mutha********a,” I sang, in an off-key falsetto.

At this point, Chuck looked up from managing his stocks on his laptop. Chuck being Chuck Blazer, my boss, Felice’s boss, everyone’s boss, and, most significantly, one of the FIFA Twenty-Four. Our man in North America.

We were in his world, his West Coast office, his Secretariat-On-The-Road, and, him being the General Secretary he was, being at the downtown Marriott – one of the most expensive places to be in Los Angeles – made perfect sense.

What didn’t make sense was my being here, with him, at the highest levels of world football. What made even less sense was sitting next to Felice, a B-list actress I lusted after for half a decade, a woman who made me tolerant of Scott Baio in a movie. In anything, to be honest. None of it made sense, yet here I was, moving to access a laptop screen while my boss looked at me.

“Who?” Chuck bellowed.

By this time, I had pulled her up on the ‘net. “HER!” I beamed triumphantly, pointing at my laptop.

Prince’s video played, and a girl in a see-though faux-pearl dress and black undergarments featured prominently.

Felice came over, every step a goddamn enticement, looked me in the eye, and then leaned over the screen. She snatched the laptop off my desk and took it over to Chuck, the CONCACAF General Secretary, the FIFA Executive Committee member. After a moment, she and Chuck shot each other knowing glances, and Felice laughed.

“Oh, you mean Troy; Troy Beyer. Yeah, she’s my friend, she was just here; we were planning what we were going to do this weekend.”

“You know her?” I asked incredulously, not because it was ludicrous for Felice to know the sexy M.F., but because it was plainly ludicrous for me to have such free and easy access to more than one of my teen fantasies. Felice was enough. But the sexy M.F.? I mean, come on; it was becoming too much.

Felice noted the consternation on my face, and set to make me even more crazy: “we were talking about going over to the Mansion this weekend, after the games. Wanna come?”

“Mansion?” I asked slowly, hoping against hope.

“The Playboy Mansion,” Felice said breathily. “Have you ever been?”

Time stopped, or slowed to an imperceptible crawl. Ah, I thought. I’ve experienced this before; I’m dreaming. This is that ever-elusive dream moment author William Gibson once described; one chases it, fruitlessly, to unreachable conclusions. Sadly, Felice wouldn’t speak again. I would wake up.

“Ever been?” Felice asked again.

“No, Felice.” She smiled.

“Then you should go; I know you’re able, your schedule is my schedule. But are you willing?” While I let the idea of going the Hefner’s house marinate in my addled brain, I noticed Felice looking oddly out the corner of one eye. She seemed to sense about the same time I did that Chuck was staring at me, intently, as if he, too, were waiting on my answer.

I looked at Chuck, and his eyes peered out from between his bushy brows and his beard and at me as if he needed to know something about me, as if this decision, this choice, was somehow important…to him.

Not too weird, Chuck… I thought. Then my attention turned back to Felice.

“What the hell. It’s the Mansion!” I said, shrugging.

Felice and I laughed, and I proceeded to get as many details as I could from Teen Fantasy #1 on her apparent friendship with Teen Fantasy #2, while still looking like I was getting the work of world football done at my desk. Every now and then I glanced up at Chuck, who, every now and then, was, seemingly, still contemplating me.

Finally, after several minutes of what appeared to be some battle raging within him, some judgment was made, a Blazer-esque grunt reflecting some conclusion issued forth, and Chuck’s fullest attention went back to his stocks and the monitor, upon which CNBC was always playing.

The Mansion! I thought. With Felice on one arm and, maybe, Troy on the other? I fantasized. Once again, there’s nothing better than working in world football! My mind screamed.

Then I sighed, eyeing Chuck one more time. I gotta call Laurel.

~~~~~

FALL, 2000
HOME – GRAY ST. – TEANECK, NEW JERSEY

Laurel, my wife, straightened and adjusted my tie in the living room of our modest two –bedroom, one-bath home. Looking out the window as she worked the knot into my neck and helped me get ready, I was reminded of the blessing of good neighbors and good neighborhoods. The narrow street’s arbor swayed in the fall breeze, connoting the ostensible suburban American Dream. New Jersey: living just barely outside the city that never sleeps with our white picket fence; our dream, and we could no longer afford it. Quitting my job didn’t help.

“You look ready,” Laurel surmised, finally stepping back and taking me in. “Are you ready?”

“Indeed,” I said. “Both Sheldon and I.”

Sheldon – Sheldon Robinson – would, without doubt, meet me at Trump Tower’s front door with a look that would shame even my wife’s bold efforts to help me look good for this presentation. Sheldon was known for spending his last dollar – or that of his twin brother, Sherwin – on, say, a Kenneth Cole belt/shoe/watch combination that would, in his mind, present the perfect, final accessory to his package.

At least, until next week.

Image

Sheldon Robinson – the cat who knew the cats who knew the cats who knew Chuck Blazer, and got us in the door.

The definitive clothes-hound, Sheldon would look great and know a little, while I would look the way I look, and know a little more about what we were proposing. But it was thanks to him, and his cousin Alvin, that we had this singular opportunity in any case.

Sheldon and I used to run the most prolific theme entertainment restaurants in the world, and we ran them in Times Square, where 39 million tourists a year might pass through. High pressure, high expectations, and that’s why when he said he knew someone who would help us to present a similar concept to FIFA, soccer’s one-world government, I took him at his word. We had been through too many days and nights in the industry to not trust one another.

And Sheldon came through. Three weeks prior, he called me to say that Alvin, a legend in cricket, table tennis and in soccer in Trinidad, had reached out to folks he knew at FIFA’s confederation in North America, CONCACAF, and made possible a meeting for us to present our Great Idea to a CONCACAF and FIFA executive, a man named Chuck Blazer.

The name sounded familiar, and after a moment, I remembered why; Blazer had been a reference for a young man who worked for me in production at ESPN/Disney Regional Entertainment, and I spoke with Blazer for some time on the phone, half checking references, half intrigued at this shadow world of football leadership.

Blazer, at that time, had been quite affable and forthcoming, always intimating that there was something on his side of the curtain that you’d rather know about, something you were missing by not being where he was. I never forgot that, and today, I hoped to offer him something he didn’t have, something at which I was quite expert.

I walked to the corner, and in seventeen minutes the bus had dropped me off in midtown Manhattan, at the Port Authority bus terminal. As was my tradition on the bus, I had given the middle finger to all those stuck in traffic at the Jersey-side entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, saying to myself “So long, suckers!” as we whisked by them all in the bus-only lane, leaving the daily morning blare of their collective car horns behind.

I had once been one of those suckers. Draw concentric circles successively ten miles further out from Midtown Manhattan. When you get eight or nine circles out, you’ll be where I was, the closest to the city I could afford, even – especially – on a Disney manager’s salary. I used to drive the 86 miles each way to go into the Big Apple, listening to – and memorizing – things like the Les Miserables soundtrack while sitting, like a sucker, in traffic at gateways to Manhattan like the Lincoln Tunnel, staring in envy at those on the bus, in the bus lane, wondering if a casual, comfortable ride into some meaningful work was ever in my future. Valjean | At Last | We See Each Other Plain | Monsieur Le Mere | You’ll Wear A Different Chain… hell, my chain was my commute, there were days where, given the Times Square parking, I would lose money coming to work…

Now, my attaché case in hand, my future in that case, I descended from bus to subway level, looking for the E train. A crowd gathered around an elderly man in a burgundy-red suit who was passed out, or dead, and on the ground, blood under his head. Two Port Authority officers stood in his midst, and they, along with a few of the crowd, offered up some gallows humor about the man, chuckling, while they waited for the dispatch they had radioed in to arrive, and I was reminded of the alternating greatness and horror that was life, everyday, in New York City.

I E trained-it from that scene on over to 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, where it was only three blocks’ walk to the black, golden and gaudy Trump Tower, within which CONCACAF – the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football – resides, where our meeting was to be held.

Trump Tower’s black glass exterior shot upward, dimming, only a little, the huge AVON signage itself above the TRUMP TOWER lettering, in gold. The bustle of cabs and pedestrians, some going into the Tower, others seemingly on their way to Tiffany’s, next door, presented one New York, typified.

“On time and ready sir,” said Sheldon, emerging from around the opposite corner of the building. “Lunch after?”

“Depends,” I said, “on how this goes,” and I made my way through the exterior doors and toward the commercial side elevators. It really did depend. Laurel and I agreed that, money being tight and me being unemployed, lunch was only to happen in the city if it looked truly promising. Otherwise, it was tuna fish and apple salad back home.

Now, those of you who have read some of the other fine work out there about world football will know: I’m a big guy. Smallish for the NBA, but big for, well, life. There are advantages and harms that come from being such a height. No more shopping at THE GAP, for example. Always being able to find folks over a crowd, there’s another.

James also knows these truths, because James is big too.

Image

James.

James led the door and building security for Trump Tower. A former New York Jet running back who had the typical career we never tell our young athletes about – in and out, for the most part – James’ big, bald head intimated his seriousness, a look he cultivated and an outcome he hoped for, since he was, deep down, an old softy. Today, his left lapel held not only the trump Tower pin but, above that, an American flag, like he was running for office or something. Behind James, a circular plaque embedded in the wall, shared that either the Tower, James, or the elevator shaft was a FIVE STAR DIAMOND AWARD winner. It glistened, James glistened, his pins glistened, and everything in that lobby was shiny, golden, and clean; a far cry from the dirt and blood of minutes ago under the old man outside the bus terminal.

“Where to, gentleman?” James boomed.

“CONCACAF, 17th floor, if you would,” I said.

“Not only did you get the name right – nobody does,” James said, hitting the button behind him, “but you know the floor – which nobody knows. Been here before?”

“No,” Sheldon submitted. “But we hope to be back.”

James laughed, a warm, deep sound, his beefy arm holding the elevator door from closing. “Whatever it is, good luck.”

We went in, then we went up.

~~~~~

CONCACAF – you’d never know. A plain stucco wall spanned the corridor to which Sheldon and I were dispatched, the elevator silently slipping away to another floor behind us. On small cylindrical daises, fake plants in golden canisters were placed about every four feet, and two ashcans in faux-marble ensured that those with a need to fulfill that nicotine addiction didn’t even have to wait for the elevator to take them downstairs. A bland gray carpet matched the off-white of the ceiling only in that both seemed imbued with decades of smoke and grime; history in desiccating layers both diminishing and black, outlining the ceiling. At the far end, two glass doors awaited us.

As we approached, Mildred Pastor, CONCACAF’s lobby phone girl, eyed us casually then buzzed us through. Mildred’s cornrows ended in curls, accentuating her round, happy face, expansive forehead and her genuine smile. Her ears and neck regularly strewn with gold, Mildred paused a conversation she was having over her earpiece-microphone headset long enough to assure us we were in the right place.

“Hello?” Mildred said.

Image

Mildred.

“CONCACAF?” Sheldon inquired.

“Yes it is…Robinson and Brennan? Here for Mr. Blazer?”

“Indeed,” I submitted.

“Have a seat; Mr. Blazer will be down shortly.”

Down? I thought. How many floors of the damn building does CONCACAF have? I sat in the waiting area, oddly placed behind Mildred, while Sheldon tried to have a conversation with her, oblivious that she was hoping to return to her own conversation via that gray headset. Bereft of any football reading material, and already weary of the Marlboro-tainted décor, I began to think about the massive scale of CONCACAF, and of FIFA.

CONCACAF is comprised of the best football minds throughout forty nations, I rehearsed. My research on the confederation of FIFA made it clear how many nations there were; I decided that saying it like that would give the late-arriving General Secretary the sense that (1) I had done at least some homework, and (2) that I was giving the organization its proper respect.

No doubt, a comprehensive eating, dining and gaming experience has already occurred to you and the others who comprise the Twenty-Four, FIFA’s executive committee. Here’s how we can make any concept you have on the table even better… I became lost in the practiced presentation effort and Sheldon’s surprisingly extended conversation with Mildred, as the minutes ticked away.

Half an hour later, we were moved to the CONCACAF conference room; half a minute after that, Blazer arrived.

We did not see him at first; rather, we heard him. That is, we heard the rustle of energy and activity that signaled his coming. It was the first time I experienced what many would later refer to “staff getting into orbit” around Blazer. Imagine planets in orbit around a sun, all with varying speeds, angles, and rotations, and that’s what Blazer’s approach, that day and every day, was like. He was the sun – giver of light, warmth and very possibility of life – in the minds of many…most of all, I would come to learn, his own.

In the midst of the bustle and bother, we could hear grunts and gruffs and near-growls of varying length and intensity, and Sheldon and I could only assume that this was Chuck himself, confirming or denying some request, or contract point, or appointment, or any one of the 10,001 things a General Secretary and member of the Twenty-Four had to do everyday.

Finally, he entered, leaving most of the retinue behind.

Chuck Blazer was, and is, a man of authentically reasonable resemblance to, well, Santa Claus. A man of tremendous girth both physically and in terms of the intensity of his personality, you immediately get the sense that there’s a lot here to deal with. Now, again, I’m a big guy, so I know that I was less intimidated than Sheldon was, but that’s not to say I wasn’t intimidated; Chuck challenges you, his intellect, voice, style…hell, his very presence is not immediately easy to get one’s head – or arms – around. We were entirely awake to his importance: here was the most important American and North American in world football, for chrissakes! As he drew himself fully into the room, we moved to shake his hand, and he switched the hand holding his lit cigarette to shake hands with Sheldon and I in turn.

It was then I noticed that a staffer, one I would come to know – Doris – and one of those formerly in orbit, had entered behind Blazer, pulling his chair out far from the conference table and readying his space with coffee, ashtray and an earlier version of our proposal, sent a couple of days ago in preparation for this meeting. Doris’ engaging eyes were focused on provision for Blazer alone; she hardly noticed us, or, if she did, her manner was oriented to service of Blazer alone. This particular day, a baseball cap covered the beautiful hair with which I would come to associate her.

ImageImage

Doris.  Chuck.

“Gentlemen,” said Blazer, easing down into his chair with Doris’ help, shooting me a quick glance. It looked like he wasn’t going to make it, so I bounded over to join in helping this man down into his seat. As I did so, I wondered if Chuck had eyed me with an expectation that I would help him sit. Well, hopefully I passed that test, if it was a test, I thought. It seemed, already, like Chuck was the kind of elite who would test you, just in that way, for secret reasons he would not often deign to reveal.

Satisfied, finally, with his admittedly precarious position on the chair, Chuck began. By coughing.

That session both abating and confirming the extent of his smoking habit, Chuck growled “So, you know Alvin?”

“My cousin sir,” Sheldon offered. “He knew this idea could stand on its own, so he reached out I guess to you. “ Sheldon waved away Blazer’s cigarette smoke.

That’s a mistake
, I thought. I could see that Blazer thought so too; a subtle rebuke in an environment where it was easy to see that every little thing mattered to him, every little thing made an impression.

“Thank you for your time; we know it is indeed precious, and we’ll be quick” I ventured.

“No, no, I’m dressed and down here now,” Blazer countered. “After this, its questions and signatures; they’ll try to make me do work,” he gruffed, half laughing while pointing out the door. “Just be interesting.”

The meeting lasted forty minutes; Sheldon and I worked hard over the next twenty-five minutes to be make our proposal, THE FIFA EXPERIENCE, interesting as hell. Not once did I wave away the ever-encroaching smoke, a feat that stood against my twitchy desire to do so throughout. Blazer spent Minute Twenty-Six of our time together telling us that our proposal had very little chance to become a reality, then he spent the rest of the time offering his take on how FIFA works and making us promises.

“So, I was at Stamford Bridge,” Blazer began.

“Watching Chelsea play whom?” I offered.

Blazer smiled. With that one comment, I had entered a seemingly small but genuinely growing fraternity: American men who were NOT totally ignorant to world football. Blazer continued by telling us a story about how much of a quality human being Chelsea owner Ken Bates was, and how visionary his club-hotel-shopping project was.

“I hope to get there someday,” I sighed.

“Stamford Bridge?” asked Chuck.

“There, and all the Premiership grounds,” I answered.

“I’ll take you; I’ll take you soon.” Chuck offered.

“Really?” I asked, dubiously. Here’s a guy who just told us our idea was shit, now he’s promising us trips to London? And, interestingly, not us, but me?

“Sure,” Chuck replied, matter-of-factly. “Anytime.” Oddly, I believed him; that is, I had become sure that if I could figure out a way to make him taking me to London interesting, that he sure-as-hell would bring me along. In the back of my mind, a thought germinated, curled up and revealed itself: Entourage? That’s all you are to him? But such thinking was quickly squashed with other, more potent thoughts, like Do whatever it is you have to do, man! and Stamford Bridge. Cool. Finally, one thought dominated, desperately, over all others:

There’s no real reason for him to follow-up with you, or speak to you, ever again
.

He moved to get up, signaling that this meeting, this opportunity, was over.

Doris had not yet returned, so Sheldon, he having caught a clue, and I moved expeditiously to facilitate Blazer’s rise. We walked him to his office, opposite the end of the corridor that would be our exit.

I noticed for the first time the interior hallway décor. Every few steps or so, a framed montage of Hanna-Barbera characters, executed and signed by the creators themselves, was on display. WELCOME TO ROCKVEGAS, the Flintstones montage offered. MICKEY’S WORLD TOUR was another, signed by a different creator, not Disney.

ImageImage

The fantastic world of HB and Disney, outside Chuck’s office  Don’t ask me about the bull’s head.

Blazer reached his office and Doris met him there, ostensibly to walk us out. Blazer turned to us to say something, when I blurted, unthinking, “I need your cellphone number. I’d like to stay in contact.”

Blazer eyed me for a moment, then offered up the number, half-smiling. As Doris wrote the number down for me, I tested my luck even further: “What I’d really like to do is work in world football.” You idiot! You know that you don’t have the qualifications! What are you doing?

Silence. I cleared my throat. “Or at least,” I tried to recover, “I’d like to know what I have to do to become ready for a place like this.”
“We’ll talk soon,” Chuck replied cryptically. “Soon.”

Sheldon and I said our goodbyes, and turned up the hallway, Doris leading us to Mildred’s domain near the front door. As if he were processing the art in the hallway for the first time, Sheldon turned to me and mouthed “Like fantasyland here.”

In more ways than one.

~~~~~

JANUARY, 2001
HOME – GRAY ST.

I was still out of a job. For some reason that day, even though our concept was shot down by one of only twenty-four men who could give it life, I still felt personally successful. In spite of Laurel’s entreaty to refrain from spending without a clear win, I had taken Sheldon to Carnegie Deli anyway. Somehow it felt like a win, and those big-ass sandwiches inspire me to try audacious things myself.

I decided to give Blazer what ended up being a strategic series of calls. I followed up early on with a whole “thank you for your time,” exchange, then called another time about a week later to illuminate ILLUMINA LLC, my very nascent effort to try to do something to earn anything for my wife and son. The notion behind ILLUMINA was to garner investors to produce “Timeline DVDs” for sports clubs, allowing fans to experience historic video and other content from various eras of their favorite clubs. Given the fact there were 10 times more professional soccer clubs with their own history in Portugal alone then there have ever been in the NFL, soccer, with its international profile, was, to me, the place for ILLUMINA to start.

Chuck seemed mildly intrigued, but not enough to invest, or to share any investors he might know with me. He referred obliquely to the possibility of my coming to work not for CONCACAF directly, but for Nike, maybe, on an affiliated project he would direct, should it pan out. “But who knows,” Chuck said. “These possibilities come and go. Don’t wait for me to make your moves.” Oddly, having gotten to know me a little bit – having had me insert myself into Chuck’s world – it seemed that he felt a little sad, a little responsible, for not being able to bring me on-board, or do much for me at the time.

Chuck seemed particularly intrigued with my martial arts background. I’ve been involved in various styles since 1972, but my stint at the USAFA ninjutsu club intrigued him more than anything. But not enough to lead to steady work. Yet we talked, playing and positioning ourselves on the phone and in person, for the better part of a month. Foolishly, I thought I was cultivating him, when it was entirely the other way around.

Finally, I decided to spend money neither Laurel nor I had on what I described to Chuck as a last-ditch gamble before returning to the search for regular work: to take a prospectus of this Timeline DVD idea to Cannes, to FIFA’s Football Expo, where I might begin to associate myself with football’s decision-makers, and where I might garner a few investors for ILLUMINA. The Cannes event ran from 29 January to 1 February, and the most costly thing was not the air fare, but, rather, the lodging. Laurel and I spent money we could never spare on a decent place for me to stay in the south of France, and on Kinko’s presentations of the ILLUMINA idea to serve as handouts or prospecti.

Hours before I went to Cannes, the phone rang. Laurel picked it up. She looked at me, eyes wide.

“It’s Chuck Blazer” she said, hopefully. Chuck never – ever – called me. I always harassed him.

I took the phone. “My wife and son are getting ready to take me to the airport” I said. “You going to be there, in France?”

“No, no chance. Football Expo is Sepp’s thing, and boring. Yes, you’re going to Cannes, but not as a representative of that thing you are trying to do; instead, you’re going as a representative of CONCACAF, as my Special Projects Director, in fact.

“Welcome aboard.”

I was in.

Into exactly what?  I would find out.