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.