Too many students have crowded outside his closed office door and Sunil Gulati cannot concentrate through the noise.
The sign-up sheet for a Thursday lunch with the professor has quickly filled and the queue of 22 students clustered around his office door want to know if he’ll schedule another meal.
“Okay, okay,” he calms the crowd. “We’ll see what wecan do.”
Gulati has had a lot of practice of late trying to calm clamorous crowds angling for his attention.
Sunil Gulati was named president of the United States Soccer Federation in March 2006
Named president of the United States Soccer Federation in March 2006, he has been trying to translate his vision for the team into reality, while contending with pressure from colleagues, players and fans. And the road has been anything but smooth.
Just six months after Gulati’s accession, the US national soccer team made an appearance at the World Cup in Germany, highly ranked and under intense media scrutiny. But Gulati watched from the stands with great disappointment as the team suffered a quick defeat in the first round.
“I’m so upset!” one blogger lamented on worldcupblog.org. Another poster on fifaworldcup.com said, “This only proves and tells the world that they do not have a place in the highest level of football.”
It was a disconcerting start for Gulati. A few months later, the professor settles into his small office in the economics department at Columbia University, and shrugs off the loss with a philosophical, “What can you do?”
How a young man born in Allahabad 47 years ago, who never played professional football, ended up heading the US federation underscores a passion for the sport that Gulati has cultivated his whole life.
His family moved to a small Connecticut town from India when he was three years old and Gulati grew up playing soccer. He participated and coached youth leagues throughout his college years. As a Columbia graduate student, the sport was far from a national obsession, and so, the organization of the entire league was essentially managed off spreadsheets from his Apple Mac.
As the league grew, Gulati worked in almost every capacity, in accounting, managing, assisting, and coaching. Still, his parents were uncertain how this interest in soccer would affect his career path.
“They thought I was kind of spinning my wheels, doing this crazy sports thing,” Gulati recalls. But he was allowed the indulgence as he moved on to a “real” career: as an economics professor at Columbia and as an economic adviser at the World Bank. “I wasn’t a renegade. I always had a day job.”
A year ago, few on campus even knew that the professor, whose passion for teaching has earned him plenty of student fans, cared for soccer. Columbia’s online student newspaper, Bwog.com, regularly tracks his quippy one-liners in his economics class: “You’re supposed to do something for the people you love on Valentine’s Day. And, of course, I love you all very much. So I decided to give you the quiz on pink paperinstead!”
Says John Klopfer, an economics major at Columbia: “Some people detest his showmanship. Nonetheless, it is that same showmanship that makes his class so popular and convinces many students to take it who have no plans to major in economics.”
Gulati does have detractors, however. The ex-US national soccer coach, Bruce Arena, said Gulati was a “superfan” who ran for president to “be around the world of bigwigs at Fifa (the international federation of football)”.
The remark came immediately after Gulati’s swift dismissal of Arena after the disappointment at the World Cup. An apology quickly followed, but Gulati disregards the apology: “Besides my 8-year-old, you’re not allowed to trash me and apologize the next day.”
He also received flack for the highly secretive, seven-month search for a new head coach, which quickly ended after the first choice, former German national coach Jurgen Klinsmann, turned down the job. The federation hired an interim coach in his place, Bob Bradley, most recently with the Chivas USA club. The press criticized Gulati for the lack of resolution and the time the national team spent without any proper direction.
Gulati is quick to remind his detractors that he has long-reaching goals and needs the time to see them play out.
“It is very much a labour of love,” he remarks.
Although Gulati has his work cut out for him with a team that ranked 29th on the world stage as of April, Jim Morehouse, the communications director for USSF, says Gulati is perfectly positioned for the role of president because of his participation in the sport and the federation through the years, saying, “Quite literally, he has done it all.”
In 1994, Gulati helped bring the World Cup to the US, a major coup for the young man who was working as an assistant to the president at the federation. His parents flew from Connecticut to watch games in Michigan. For the first time, he says, they began to see the crazy sports thing as an actual accomplishment, adding, “It’s safe to say now they’re big soccer fans.”
Gulati has been integral to the growth of the sport in a country dominated by other sports. Like India, where cricket dominates sport talk, US sports fans do not embrace soccer like they do to football, baseball and basketball.
“I’m obsessively passionate. If you’re not passionate about something, it’s going to be a long 50-year career,” he advises his economic students.
His primary goal for his tenure is to help bring about a national recognition for his sport on the levels of football and baseball. He hopes interest garnered by players such as soccer star David Beckham, who recently moved to the Los Angeles Galaxy team, will draw more fans to the sport he loves.
He also wants the World Cup to come back to the states, a new woman’s professional league by 2008.
Gulati has a lot to prove, but he’s not intimidated by the task. “It’s just the beginning of my term,” he says. “Check back with me in two years.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org