War of the worlds – South Africa

Richard Maguire assesses whether the South Africa bid has what it takes to win

Should South Africa win the right to host the 2006 World Cup, the success of their bid can be traced back to ten nerve-wracking minutes at a Paris airport in May. That was when Sepp Blatter turned to Emmanuel Maradas, the editor of African Soccer, and said: “That’s it, if the telephone doesn’t ring, it’s over, I’m pulling out.”

Blatter, then FIFA general secretary, was waiting for a call from Danny Jordaan, then chief executive officer of the South African Football Association. Jordaan had invited Blatter and his rival for the FIFA presidency, UEFA’s Lennart Johansson, to Johannesburg to attend a friendly against Zambia. Also on the agenda was an opportunity to address the executive of COSAFA, the Southern African governing body.

Johansson, aware that Jordaan and his SAFA executive supported Blatter to succeed João Havelange, turned down the invitation. Jordaan hesitated, fearing the presence of only one candidate would be seen as too open an indication of support for Blatter. The sensitivity of this was magnified by the fact that the hierarchy of CAF, the African ruling body, supported Johansson.

“Sepp told me the jet was fuelled and waiting for take off, and he only had about ten minutes to board,” Jordaan recalled. After initially telling Blatter not to come, Jordaan changed his mind after consulting Jack Warner, the head of Concacaf and another big Blatter supporter. Maradas later recalled how Blatter had decided to throw in the cards after Jordaan’s first call. “Without the Southern African votes, he didn’t think he could beat Johansson,” Maradas said. When Jordaan relented, the die was cast. Blatter was able to swing the sub-continent behind his campaign.

A couple of months later, in France, Bafana Bafana made their inauspicious World Cup debut, and Sepp Blatter was elected FIFA president. At that time, the prospect of South Africa hosting the World Cup eight years later seemed nothing but a pipe-dream. SAFA had no bid committee in place, there had been no visible efforts to win local support and South African football continued to be dogged by scandals, in-fighting and extraordinary administrative bungling.

Yet, away from the parochialism and intrigues of the local game, Jordaan had been working overtime to woo support for South Africa. Coupled with his tire­less lobbying at a succession of FIFA gatherings was his support for the Blatter candidacy, based on a belief that Blatter’s promises to Africa appeared much more sincere than Johansson’s.

Since ascending to the presidency, Blatter has re­ciprocated Jordaan’s faith, suggesting quite strongly that 2006 represents Africa’s turn to host the World Cup. Blatter’s visit in November to bestow on President Nelson Mandela the FIFA Order of Merit, and in turn to accept the Order of Good Hope has bolstered the assumption that South Africa, suddenly, has 2006 in the bag. It seems obvious that Blatter sees the country as Africa’s best candidate by far, much more desirable than Egypt or any other possible contender.

Jordaan has now stepped down as SAFA chief to take up the position of CEO of the bid. A former Afric­an National Congress activist, he is beginning the process of seriously lobbying for state and private sector funds. Around him a bid committee is taking shape under the chairmanship of South African football’s strongman Irvin Khoza – boss of Orlando Pirates, SAFA vice president and the most powerful figure on the Premiership’s board of governors.

The committee has been bolstered with a couple of captains of industry, all the wiser for their part in Cape Town’s hubristic Olympic bid that was based more on emotion than serious planning. The sentiment within the nascent bid committee is “it’s ours to lose” or, as one international risk management consultant press­ed into service told me: “FIFA are giving it to us, we can throw it away or we can run with it.”

The bid has some obvious strengths. Contrary to the assumptions many Europeans might hold, South Africa has between six and eight world-class stadiums. All but one are rugby grounds, but Jordaan has no time for the arguments that new soccer arenas should be built. Johannesburg’s Soccer City, the country’s major football stadium and scene of the 1996 African Nations Cup triumph, is already being upgraded to extend its capacity to 120,000. South Africa’s hotels and road network rival those of most western European count­ries, and their air services are cheaper. The weak rand further strengthens the country’s hand, as it makes South Africa a desirable tourist destination.

Against that, there is an absence of other facilities, such as adequate training venues. According to Jord­aan, the aim is to “use the World Cup to generate revenue to upgrade township facilities and to try to leverage that money before the World Cup”. Public transport is poor in many of the major centres, with the majority of workers dependent on the often cha­otic system of independently owned minibus taxis, and most of the domestic airports need upgrading.

Then there is the most obvious of stumbling blocks – the appalling crime level. During Blatter’s visit in November, the West Indies Cricket Board president Pat Rousseau was hijacked at gunpoint while travelling through Soweto – a crime becoming frighteningly commonplace in and around Johannesburg. Finally, South African football administration remains weak, with capable men like Jordaan and Khoza overworked and guilty of over-centralising control.

South Africa still has much to do to garner more votes on Exco. The North Americans appear favourably disposed, and a recent visit to Brazil elicited promises of support (although not willing to admit it, Brazil itself is in no position to make a serious bid). Where the Asians stand is anyone’s guess.

But crucially, Jordaan must first win over the rest of Africa and defuse the lingering animosity over the Blatter-Johansson battle, fuelled by Francophone and north African resentment at South Africa’s sudden rise to a position of influence. With Egypt (the seat of CAF headquarters), Morocco and Nigeria also considering making a bid, Blatter has advised CAF to settle on one contender. Ironically, one of SAFA’s biggest opp­onents may prove to be not a north African, but the Botswanan Ismail Bhamjee, an Exco member and sup­p­orter of CAF president Issa Hayatou and Johansson.

There is a tendency within football, but also in the broader South Africa, to dream big and talk big, but to do very little. I witnessed an example at a Johannesburg hotel recently, where the bid committee met after breakfast to finalise their founding document. By lunchtime, no progress had been made because Khoza had not arrived. He was busy preparing his club for the Soweto derby with Kaizer Chiefs, and no one was brave enough to take decisions without him. So the committee hung around in the hotel restaurant and waited.

South Africa cannot afford much more hanging around and waiting. Nor can it rely on international goodwill, the “miracle” of Mandela and his new nation, nor gentle political persuasion. Blatter himself warned during his recent visit that “the standard has been set [in France] and it will be maintained at the same very high, sophisticated level. I may have set my heart on helping South Africa obtain the World Cup in 2006 but whoever is Africa’s choice will have to meet the stringent requirements the world demands”.

Yes, the World Cup in 2006 could very much be South Africa’s to throw away.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month