The greed and stymied idealism of world football's ruling body is casting an ominous shadow over this summer's World Cup tournament in South Africa.
(©2009, Fifa TM)
In true populist fashion, Sepp Blatter — the quasi-dictatorial Swiss president of football’s world governing body Fifa — promised to deliver the first World Cup Finals tournament to be held in Africa. In an all-African bidding process, South Africa was finally selected as the official host nation of the 2010 event over Morocco and Egypt. Blatter explained how the win would result in a multi-billion cash injection for the South African economy, claiming with his usual bombast: “The victor is football. The victor is Africa.” In February, Blatter reiterated his pledge to “spread the economic benefit” and let ordinary South Africans “share the love story between Fifa and Africa”.
But this particular love story is already turning sour. Last November, in an exercise seen as a dry-run for the main event in July, Nigeria hosted the Under-17 World Cup Finals. The event left the Nigerians 12 billion naira (£54 million) in debt, just as the country sought a loan of $3 billion from the World Bank. The African Cup of Nations held in Angola in January — run by Fifa’s African subsidiary — was equally inauspicious: the Togo team’s bus was ambushed and three people were killed. It would be wrong to link these very different African nations, but justifiable concern has been raised about South Africa’s ability to control violent crime in its host cities.
As for “sharing the economic benefit”, it seems Blatter is intent only on sharing among his own. He awarded exclusive rights to sell World Cup hospitality packages to the Swiss firm Match, a deal which requires South African hotels to relinquish 30 per cent of their total income over the course of the tournament. Match is part-owned by Zurich marketing group Infront, whose president happens to be Sepp’s nephew, Philippe Blatter. All official merchandise for the finals is being exclusively made by Fifa’s official retail partner and Singapore-based Global Brands Group — a partnership which in February brokered a multi-million-pound deal to open 14 Fifa flagship stores in the Middle East. Despite its pledge to source labour from South African manufacturers if possible, Global Brands Group was found in January to be making World Cup mascot toys in Chinese sweatshops. Meanwhile, Fifa has enlisted the help of local police to crack down on South African businesses “profiting from the World Cup brand”. In March, Fifa took legal action against a key-ring salesman for using the words “World Cup” on some of his products.
Perhaps most damaging of all, just 10 weeks before the start of the tournament one million tickets — more than one-third of all allocated — were yet to be sold. The high prices demanded by hospitality companies like Match, coupled with fears over security, have meant that non-African ticket sales are catastrophically low. The local uptake isn’t much better: Fifa has just lowered the prices of tickets for South Africans for the fourth time to stimulate sales — without, as yet, much effect.
The performances of South Africa’s own team — known affectionately as Bafana Bafana — aren’t any less disastrous. In a recent friendly match — one organised as a morale booster after a string of defeats against stronger opposition — South Africa could only manage a scrappy 1-1 draw at home to Namibia, a country placed 113th in the world rankings. South Africa faces the ignominy of being the first host nation in World Cup history not to progress to the knock-out stages. In reality, that is the least of its worries.