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The Fifa conquistadors are coming!

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The moment we've been waiting for has arrived. Fifa is in town, with its batallion of jackbooted lawyers. Assume the position.

In an all-too-brief interview last week, Faith Mangope, the smart host of the current affairs show on Y FM, asked if her listeners – the vibrant young, black, rising middle class – were to believe that Fifa is just about exploiting a host country and leaving it worse off. The answer, unfortunately, was that this is a pretty accurate description.

I’ve been banging this drum all year. In my very first column in January, I called for a boycott of Fifa and its sponsors. At the time, it seemed contrarian, petty, and even unpatriotic. But as we drew nearer to the big day, more and more headlines popped up exposing some of the iniquities of Fifa. Protest websites appeared, graciously citing my Daily Maverick columns in their own calls to boycott Fifa, or worse.

While this rise in anti-Fifa sentiment is gratifying, it is important to reiterate a number of important qualifications.

First and foremost, there’s no need for pessimism about South Africa’s ability to host the event. We’ve done almost everything right so far, and there is no reason why we won’t run a terrific event. When we’re up against it, South Africans can and do work miracles. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again this time.

Besides, Fifa can hardly complain about Africa’s shortcomings when it cannot even get tickets sold, even on the simple basis that random people are randomly selected to watch random matches from random seats at random times in random host cities. It is a damning indictment of Fifa’s competence that the worthies in their ivory tower did not realise it wouldn’t even occur to most African football fans to buy tickets online. Its claims to care about a continent about which it clearly doesn’t know the first thing is the height of conceit.

There probably will be a few nasty incidents, but they will not spoil the event. True, the British tabloids are salivating at the prospect of lurid tales of barbarism and violence. The Daily Mirror even arranged to print in South Africa, just for this purpose. To them, I’ll say this: Sorry, chaps, but the heathen natives will disappoint you. Best get some filler copy ready about how awful the vuvuzela sounds.

While boycotting Fifa, we should still enjoy the football. Fifa might claim tyrannical rights, but football is the people’s sport and we have a right to enjoy watching our national sides play, no matter how rapacious or corrupt the governing body is.

Support our team, and here’s hoping their recent run of results extends well into the group stages. It would be sweet justice to see the French handball team ejected from the tournament at the hands of our boys. May the luck of the Irish be with you, Bafana Bafana.

Do welcome the visitors to our wonderful country. We have much to show off, from the festive taverns in the townships to the splendours of nature. Make them jealous. Make them want to come back.

We’ll have much to be proud of when the World Cup is over. Of that I have no doubt.

However, none of this changes the fact that Fifa, its exclusive marketing partner, Match, and the cartel of official sponsors, have invaded this country like rapacious conquistadors. They strong-armed our government – who surely were hoping for more than just a little self-aggrandisement – into writing special laws that have “Fifa” in their title. That is not Fair Play®, Fifa. In this country, we have a constitution that is the envy of the free world. It says everyone ought to be equal before the law.

Fifa and Match shamelessly bullied our tourism industry. South African tour operators have been elbowed aside in favour of foreign giants by a $30,000 licence fee Match charges for each and every country to which they’d want to sell packages. South African accommodation venues have been left in the lurch and out of pocket. Some guest houses were smart enough not to sign the book-length contract Match dumped on their desks. Others, even when fully booked, are bitter about their treatment, complaining about last-minute cancellations without compensation and high-handed instructions to keep rooms reserved at no charge. They are incensed at the eye-watering commission Match demands, which makes South Africans look like profiteering opportunists.

When even the few who do stand to make a profit are angry at Fifa, you know something’s up. Unfortunately, they are in the minority.

Most South Africans – the people who were supposed to benefit from this grand Roman circus – are being treated like Grant Abrahamse. He registered a design for a keyring in 2004, featuring a football, a vuvuzela and the date “2010”. When Fifa belatedly discovered this, its jackboots demanded a R250,000 licence free, plus royalties on the profits. How many keyrings did the Fifa protection racket think he’d sell? So much for feeding his family.

Compared to the 3,600 cases filed in Germany in 2006, Fifa has already filed 50,000 “ambush marketing” actions against ordinary South Africans who were just hoping for a few crumbs from the table. This is a “great moment for Africa”? It’s no such thing. It was designed, from the ground up, to be a great moment for Fifa and nobody else.

Meanwhile, we’ll have R100 billion or so in infrastructure debt to pay off. Only some of it makes any sense in terms of development goals. The rest was at white elephants; they will stand as expensive monuments to the political folly of having signed over our government to the exploitation of Fifa. No amount of window-dressing by Fifa’s social responsibility department will turn these boondoggles into real development aid.

To help pay for the R100 billion, foreign visitors were expected to contribute some R20 billion to GDP. This was a poor return on investment even before the expectation of visitor numbers dropped from half a million to a mere 200,000. The only satisfaction we can draw from the poor turnout from overseas is that it will also put a dent in the loot-filled coffers Fifa hopes to lug back to Sepp Blatter’s palace in Zurich.

Allegations of graft swirl around Fifa and the Blatter royal family like green bottle flies around a steaming pile of manure. Andrew Jennings, a reporter for the BBC’s Panorama programme, recently interviewed for the Daily Maverick by Kevin Bloom, has made it his mission to expose the bribery and vote-rigging. Not surprisingly, he does not get invited to Fifa press junkets. The Local Organising Committee in South Africa, when questioned by the Mail & Guardian, claimed private privilege for the public rights that the South African Football Association ceded to it. After how Fifa treated South Africa, why would it surprise anyone to find it is rotten to the core?

It is too late to do much about the pillage to which we’re about to be subjected. But it is not too late to speak up. It’s no good to grin and bear it, just to put a positive spin on the World Cup. While the world is watching, it should hear exactly how Fifa steamrollers foreign governments and pillages developing countries. Nobody will listen when they’re all back home, the television cameras have been switched off, and we’re left counting our losses.

One can hope that such wholesale exploitation won’t happen to, say, Brazil. Maybe its government can do more to guard its citizens’ rights against being usurped by foreign invaders. Either way, Fifa ought to be cut down to size. It is not a sovereign state. It should do business on a level playing field, honestly and fairly, as it demands of the sport over which it claims proprietorship.

Saying that the World Cup will be great for nation-building and international marketing is like saying that colonialism was great for establishing civil service bureaucracies and commerce. It is true, but it is also very much beside the point.

Therefore, do enjoy the World Cup. But when you buy a flag, or a shirt, or a meal, or a vuvuzela, do as I did: check that it is not “approved by Fifa”. The World Cup trademark on a product just means that the gangsters took their cut.

Don’t fund the extortion racket. Make sure your money goes to support honest, hard-working people. They deserve your custom. Fifa and its sponsors most certainly do not.


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