At last, there seem to be serious moves to get to grips with the ugly side of “the beautiful game”. But, in contrast with the long overdue crackdown on the sleaze-drenched administration of world football, there are disturbing signs that the South African government and local administrators are in comprehensive denial.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe – who was part of the 2010 World Cup local organising committee – trotted out the predictably upbeat reaction that South Africa had received “a clean audit from a reputable company” in the wake of the tournament and that Fifa president Sepp Blatter had given the country “eight or nine out of 10”.
Radebe’s remarks, echoed by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, stand in stark contradiction with the dramatic developments elsewhere in the world.
In the first serious challenge to what has been an untouchable multibillion-dollar sporting cartel, United States attorney general Loretta Lynch dropped an explosive indictment on Wednesday, claiming “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” graft in the international game.
Under the heading “The criminal schemes”, it accuses South African officialdom of involvement in bribes totalling $10-million to buy the votes that secured the 2010 World Cup.
On the eve of the Fifa congress in Zurich, Swiss police pounced on officials of the federation on the FBI’s insistence, as part of a global inquiry that stretches from Moscow to Doha – and Johannesburg. The Swiss have opened separate criminal proceedings over the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
It appears that no South African has yet been approached to assist the American investigators. But the US justice authorities appear to be in deadly earnest, suggesting that sooner or later they will train a spotlight on our administrators and politicians.
The corruption allegations against the world body are not new, but in Fifa’s 110-year history no country has been bold enough to challenge its increasingly mafia-like culture.
It has become an omnipotent global state, threatening any government that dares to scrutinise its operations, enjoying tax-free status in Zurich and forcing politicians to dance to its tune.
Such is its hypnotic sway that some countries have been all but bankrupted by the World Cup, the world’s most expensive sporting festivity.
There have been few demonstrable benefits for South Africa’s economy from the 2010 event, and a substantial hangover in the form of largely unused stadiums that continue to saddle local authorities with heavy maintenance costs.
The US indictment may prove the first step in breaking Fifa’s insidious stranglehold. What is needed is a thoroughgoing structural overhaul that would include transforming it from a Swiss nonprofit body into a multilateral federation subject to international law.
National football associations need to take charge of the federation, and not the other way round. There must be strict regulation of sponsorship and how the money is dispensed.
Most importantly, the power to select the World Cup host must be taken away from a handful of soccer oligarchs, and equitable and transparent selection criteria introduced.
It is fervently to be hoped that the US initiative will force Blatter to withdraw his bid for a fifth term as president – or, at the very least, account for the parlous state of the federation. His immediate reaction to the indictment and arrests was to keep his head well below the parapet. But after 17 years at the helm, he must shoulder a large part of the blame.
South Africa, too, must reassess its stance: Radebe’s bland assurances that the former bid committee is “not too worried” by the latest developments struck entirely the wrong note. What is needed is a clear indication that the US allegations are being taken seriously and that South Africa will assist in bringing crooked officials to book.
In the indictment Lynch provides persuasive details that South African football – and possibly even the South African government – has a damning case to answer.
Among the high-ranking local officials who need to account are Danny Jordaan, now the ANC’s mayor in Port Elizabeth, and Orlando Pirates chief Irvin Khoza. At the time of publishing, neither had commented on Lynch’s bombshell claims. What lends weight to the charges is the fact that the alleged recipient of the bribe, former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner from Trinidad and Tobago, is among the indicted officials, and that two of his sons have already been convicted.
But the implications go wider. The indictment points a finger at alleged South African government involvement in a scheme to pay a $10-million bribe under the guise of support for the Caribbean Football Union in the name of the “African diaspora”.
Ultimately, it is claimed things turned out differently – the money was allegedly laundered through a discount against Fifa’s subsidy to South Africa for staging the World Cup.
This is a profoundly shocking allegation. Former president Thabo Mbeki desperately wanted South Africa to land the tournament after the 2006 failure, as a symbolic coup for his African renaissance project. Is it conceivable that his government was aware of, or even complicit in, the alleged corruption?
*This comment originally appeared as an editorial in the Mail & Guardian.
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