In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, FIFA president Sepp Blatter took a swipe at club football in the United States, remarking that Major League Soccer wasn’t “recognised by American society” and claiming the country as a whole was still “struggling” to create a footprint for the sport more than 18 years after hosting the World Cup.

The interview skimmed over several topics in slightly more than 20 minutes as Marwan Bishara, received in Blatter’s personal office at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, asked the chief of world football’s governing body about matters as diverse as governance, investment and female participation.

But it was Blatter’s answer to a question about the state of the club game in the United States that particularly caught the attention when the interview was released on December 29. Instead of acknowledging the positive strides made by Major League Soccer in recent years the 76-year-old called into question the relevance of the country’s top flight, suggesting it should have done more to help grow the sport in the region.

The remarks were made quickly at the conclusion of the interview but have proven its most controversial segment, and when heard in the context of the entire presentation Blatter’s criticism comes off as ill-informed at best, shockingly ignorant at worst.

When asked about football’s development in the United States, Blatter began by citing the enrollment numbers in the youth ranks, rightly pointing out that football has become America’s most-played sport among youngsters. “But,” he continued, “there is no very strong professional league. They have just the MLS, but they have not these professional leagues which are recognised by the American society.”

What’s astonishing about his answer is that in a previous breath he had just heaped praise on the club game in China, saying, “In China, definitely, we have no problem for the future of football.” And this despite the Chinese Super League’s reputation as an overpaying, highly-corrupt division with serious credibility issues.

Naturally, there is thought to have been a subtext to Blatter’s scolding—that being Major League Soccer’s resistance to a change in scheduling.

Blatter has, on several occasions, chided the league for its April-November calendar, saying it would be better if MLS fell in line with the major European leagues and played its matches between August and May. That he has taken a rather different line with professional leagues in other parts of the world makes his position on MLS somewhat curious, and at an earlier point in the same interview he seemed to espouse the precisely opposite stance regarding leagues in Africa.

Bishara broached the topic by pointing out a North-South divide in club football—a notion Blatter acknowledged as he went on to state that more robust, African leagues would help keep the continent’s best players in their home countries longer. FIFA, he added, was aiding in the development of these leagues, few of which would ever conceive of playing an August-May schedule and instead operate from March to November.

“We are a mirror of our world in football,” he said, somehow forgetting that climate is what’s primarily reflected.

The second part of Blatter’s answer was similarly bizarre.

“It is a question of time,” he said with regards to MLS, adding that he thought the American football landscape would have taken a different shape in the years following the 1994 World Cup. “It should have been done by now. They are still struggling,” he said.

He didn’t specify what those “struggles” were. They certainly had nothing to do with gate receipts, as only seven football leagues recorded higher average attendance numbers in 2011-12 according to data released in August. MLS is out-drawing the top-flights in France, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil, and while television numbers have yet to spike the league is gaining more of a presence on some of the country’s major networks.

He can’t have been talking about the sort of economic issues that so routinely trouble other leagues, either. Few divisions are as centrally micro-managed as MLS, where the items that concern Blatter—“disinterested” owners and a growing gap between “rich” and “poor” clubs—aren’t nearly the problem they are elsewhere.

“There must be control,” he said as he talked about the free-spending nature of modern, professional football—a nature mostly contained in MLS by a salary cap.

If Blatter had wanted to offer a serious critique about football in the United States his comments in the Al Jazeera interview missed the mark by two decades. Football in these parts is getting along fine, thank-you very much. And if it doesn’t closely enough resemble the game played in Europe it’s for a very simple, organic reason: North America isn’t Europe.


Comments (12)

  1. Never ceases to amaze how Blatter, the head of the most powerful organization to govern a sport, can be so completely out of touch with it.

  2. Put down your pitch fork. Sepp is right about the state of US soccer right now. He isn’t ragging on MLS specifically. He is ragging on the USSF, NASL and USL-Pro. From his standpoint he wants a strong football association with several LEAGUES that are doing good which includes the lower divisions. If you go back and watch the video you’ll see mention of that. The lower divisions have been pretty weak until recently but they are showing signs of turning around.

    I’m also guessing he isn’t too thrilled that the USSF don’t really have any power over MLS as well.

  3. If it’s only now that you realize he’s appallingly out of touch, you, my friend, are appallingly out of touch.

  4. Agree with Carnifex; not sure it’s Blatter who doesn’t get it. Football may be the most popular sport among young Americans, but a single franchise-style top-flight pro league hardly meets the needs of their continuing development. Where’s the chance to rise through the levels of the game? College soccer exists but where are the local clubs in every town for players aged from 16 to 36, with devoted fan bases, lifetime supporters, local rivalries and, most of all, the exciting prospect of promotion and relegation? Hard to say what model is best for the US, but at present it’s a top-down, dare I say socialist (centrally managed) structure. By contrast, roll into any town anywhere in the world during the season and there’s a football game that people care and talk about over their coffee. Something like high school American football. Or look at all the levels through which baseball players of varying potential can rise. Aside from college there’s Pony League, American Legion, and all the levels of the minor-league system. Throw in relegation/promotion and cup competitions, and the American baseball structure wouldn’t be a bad model for football in the US. Look at the difference in results — in baseball, teams from the USA win the World Series year in and year out, don’t they?

    • … I’ve been trying to figure out if that last line was a joke for the last five minutes and I still can’t.

      Anyway, as has been discussed many, many, many times before, promotion and relegation just can’t work with the North American TV model. Think about the fits that ESPN would have if, say, the Lakers were relegated from the NBA or the Yankees from MLB (or the Leafs from the NHL, which would probably bankrupt at least three Canadian sports stations and the CBC overnight).

      That has the potential to effect the value of the TV contract by billions of dollars per season. It’s not a big issue in Europe, where the TV contracts are more tied to clubs than to markets since the continent’s so saturated – Juve and, to a lesser extent, Newcastle have shown that European contracts can absorb the loss of the biggest clubs for a season or two).

      • Japan’s J-League proves that the relegation/promotion model can work in countries where it had never been implemented before.. MLS is not association football bc there is no promotion/relegation. It will always be lame and pointless for this simple fact. Period.

        • Great, Japan. Why not compare MLS to Switzerland or Egypt while you’re at it?

          Promotion and relegation are incompatible with the North American television rights model*. Therefore, STOP FREAKING COMPLAINING. This isn’t “association football.” It’s a franchise-driven league played under a hybrid regulatory structure. I mean, shit, a lot of things are much BETTER with this setup – drafting, trades, etc.

          * – Another funny scenario – what if TFC and Vancouver both get dropped in the same year? Adios, TSN-Canadian rights fees.

  5. Why does everyone get caught up pitching for promotion / relegation for North America? It’s a relic at this point and there’s a reason why you often hear teams around the world making noise about creating structures that circumvent that system. Clearly the tide is going in the opposite direction.

    MLS is a young league, they have things to worry about stuff that european leagues don’t, like getting a large amount of infrastructure built or securing TV deals that are very region centric. The possibility of top markets in lower leagues is a money loser and investing in infrastructure gets more sketchy when you have the unstable cash flows associated with bouncing between leagues. In other words, we are different, it’s not going to work here and if you really want to argue about it, you can probably make a good case that it’s sub-optimal to begin with.

    • Agreed. MLS’ structure is one that makes commercial and economic sense right now. It may not make sense to European sports execs, but that’s because they’ve been stuck in their comfortable rut for so long that they can’t conceive of doing anything differently.

      And there’s no way to win with the schedule. You’d need an extended winter break to go with the European schedule, but then you’d get slaughtered by the frontloaded sports schedule. MLS is best focused on during summer, when it works as an alternative to MLB, and fills a gap for people who pay attention to other leagues.

      • This may be a couple months after the article but I wanted to respond so here it is. Same can be said about American Sport Execs in regards to being stuck in a rut. None the less, the lower divisions are getting stronger and NASL looks to be at 12 teams by 2014, and have stated they would like to add 1-2 teams every year until they hit 18 then step back and take a breath and look around. USL continues expansion and now even has a bit of an affiliation deal in place w/ MLS. So I can see Pro/Rel in the future, maybe not in the next 5 years but they will at least have to address it as the lower divisions continue to strengthen and the American public becomes more aware of football globally.

    • I am not complaining. I simply choose not to give a rat’s ass about MLS. So, it seems, do top-quality players from places other than North America. And why do you disparage Japan? Where does this out-of-the-blue comparison to “Switz. & Egypt’ come from? You failed to address the fact that Japan emulated association football format (ie, relegation/promotion), and succeeded in creating a coherent and well-supported 2-league system, even despite the fact that their pro sports franchise model prior to the J-League was EXACTLY like that in North America (see NPB). Oh, and look, promotion/relegation did not destroy relegated franchises there.

  6. There is zero chance of promotion/relegation, not as long as a TV contract is the holy grail for all sports leagues.

    You don’t have a New York presence, you don’t get a TV deal. Simples.

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