ZÜRICH, Switzerland – A solemn Sunil Gulati tried to put on the best face in the wake of the most bitter defeat and biggest disappointment of his tenure as US Soccer president.
About a half-hour prior on Thursday, Gulati and the rest of the world learned that Qatar had been awarded the 2022 World Cup. The US had lost to the Asian nation in the fourth and final ballot by the 22-man FIFA Executive Committee. Qatar, which has never qualified for the World Cup, received 14 votes, the US eight.
"We're disappointed," he said at the Messe Zürich. "There's no way to get around that. It's a very harsh disappointment. We worked very hard. The country's been behind us in a way frankly we haven't seen."
So has MLS, which allowed the USA Bid Committee, of which Gulati is chairman, to use its New York offices. The league recently donated $2 million to the committee.
The league took a hit, but Gulati felt it wasn't the end of the world for MLS, which had a lot to gain in prestige as the top soccer league of the host nation. MLS is a legacy of the US hosting the 1994 World Cup.
"I always viewed this as a huge pedal, and a World Cup hosted in the US would give us a foot down on that pedal and take us to a new trend line," Gulati said. "So obviously, we're not going to have that. Will that trend line still be positive? Yes. Will we still get to all of us, where Don [Garber], where I and others want to get? The answer is yes. It's going to take longer. It's going to be harder. This was a big part of the plan. There's no way around that."
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Gulati said of course he would.
[inline_node:324339]"I'm always shocked when someone says I wouldn't do anything differently," he said. "Unless you won the World Cup, or in this case, won the right to host the World Cup, it goes through our mind. Of course you think about everything. Could I sit here today and say, 'These are the seven things that we would do differently?' The answer is no. I think we did everything we could.
"But am I going over the next few days, what else could we have done? Of course," he added. "Did we do everything perfectly? Of course not. I think we tried to do everything we could and have a campaign that we're proud of. But should it have been two hours of sleep instead of three? Should it have been one more ad? Should we have gotten an extra 100,000 petitions? Should we have had three governors here? Should we have had Pele endorse it? We go through all of those thoughts."
Gulati wasn't finished.
"We submitted a bid that was ranked at the top along with a couple of others," he said. An econcomic study that has been written about that puts us pretty clearly at the top in 2022. President Clinton came in to help. We've got a country with 320 million people with a great soccer story. So that was our bid. We told our story well."
Gulati said he wasn't surprised that the cup was awarded to a country where it is extremely hot in the middle of the summer.
"I'm not shocked," he said, adding that Qatar "put forth an aggressive campaign that was successful."
The stunning decision ended an emotional several days here for Gulati and the Bid Committee.
"Luckily for us, we've had a great team here," he said. "That's a great team from a professional level as well as some personal friends. It's been a lot of emotion, a lot of hard work. If there is a roller-coaster, this is the bottom of it."
But Gulati wasn't about to jump into the ring and announce that the US would vie for the 2026 World Cup. China, which had expressed interest in that competition, cannot bid because FIFA doesn't allow confederations to host consecutive World Cups.
Prior to Thursday's announcement, Gulati spoke to Danny Jordaan, the head of the South African Organizing Committee who led not one, but two bid efforts – one unsuccessful (2006), the other successful (2010).
Gulati said he told Jordaan, "Maybe I should have told the FIFA Executive Committee yesterday that I'm not half the man that Danny is, because I can only do this once. He did it twice and I give him a lot of credit for having the stamina to do that. It's a tough process."