Head of American Soccer visits Ivory Coast

Sunil Gulati visits Bingerville orphanage

The president of the American Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati, was in Abidjan this week, and ElephantsOnline caught up with him while he was looking at some training at the Bingerville orphanage.

Gulati: ‘Well we have a couple of players out here – former national team players that are part of the Sports Envoy problem with the US State department. It’s a programme we’ve been part of for I think 4-5 years now. We’re also in the middle of a bid for the World Cup so we came out to visit the president of the Ivory Coast federation who’s a friend and a member of the FIFA executive so combing a lot into one trip.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘So there’s a bit of diplomacy as well with an eye to a future World Cup bid?’

Gulati: ‘Yeah, but I want to be very clear. The programme we’ve had here, the players being here and all of that, has got nothing to do with our World Cup bid. It’s something we’ve been doing for a number of years, so that in a different way is part of diplomacy, but a long standing programme that the US State department’s had that we’ve been part of with Soccer for I think the last five or so years now.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘Now here in West Africa all attention next month will be on South Africa. What are your feelings ahead of the World Cup finals?’

Gulati: ‘Well we’re looking forward to June 12th and the England game obviously, so we’re excited, I mean the team gathered on Monday and are ready to go, a few players still injured so I think it’ll be an exciting tournament. Expectations have risen for the US team so that makes things a little trickier, but expectations are always high for the English team so we’re very much looking to the tournament, but especially that first game.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘Looking through that group, you must think you have a good chance of getting through to the next round?’

Gulati: ‘Well you know as I say, I think there’s probably three teams that are figuring that they have a good chance of getting through. England is certainly the favourite but my guess is that the other three teams are saying, ‘Hey, we can get through in this group.’ We certainly like our chances but none of this means anything, we’ve got to go out and get some results. I’m not sure I’d pick the sequence of games that we’ve got, but that’s what it is. So, we’ll try for a good performance in the first game and move on after that.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘We’re here already on the continent of Africa. Do you get the feeling that the place is excited about having their first World Cup?’

Gulati: ‘Yeah I mean the signage around the city is pretty incredible, at the airport and everything else. I was talking to a couple of people at the airport and said, you know, ‘What would the airport be if Drogba were showing up today?’ and they said ‘You wouldn’t be able to move.’ So I think it’s a passionate country for the game to start with, but having the World Cup in South Africa with the national team of Ivory Coast playing just adds to all of that.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘And back in the US is there a lot of enthusiasm about the tournament?’

Gulati: ‘More than there’s ever been. That’s partly because the US team has gotten better, partly because of the immigrant community that is in the US, partly because of the exposure the game’s got recently and partly even more so because of the promotional efforts of ESPN and its sister networks. The promotion and ratings expectations for this tournament are I think greater than anything we’ve ever been. Americans are the number ticket buyers for the World Cup outside South Africa, so I think all of those things and frankly a president that wants to be part of the world scene and the world game as part of the world scene, so I think all of our efforts in those areas come together.’

ElephantsOnline: ‘Is there an Obama factor that will give the team a boost and make this tournament in Africa particularly special?’

Gulati: ‘Well not unless he’s going to play centre-forward for us. No, listen I think there’s certainly a difference in how we’re viewed abroad and that’s certainly a plus. But once the players are on the field, they’re playing for pride and a lot of other things, but I don’t the president can help too much there. Emotionally and spirit wise it can help but we need a good goal-scorer would be really good.’

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