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FIFA’s heart of darkness

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.

With the tournament's climax upon us, FIFA has shown its true colours: one of condescension, greed and ill-disguised racism.

“His [King Leopold’s] designs are most philanthropic and are amongst the few schemes of the kind … free from any selfish commercial or political object.”

Thus Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, wrote in 1883 of the Congolese ambitions of Leopold II of Belgium. Thus began what Arthur Conan Doyle described as “The Crime of the Congo”.

Under the guise of bringing commerce, Christianity and civilisation to the peoples of what 15 Western powers had declared to be the Congo Free State, Leopold administered the territory like a tyrannical feudal lord, exacting forced labour and imposing harsh punishments in his quest to extract from the Congo its rubber wealth. Millions would die, uncounted and hardly remembered. It took 23 years before the Belgian parliament bowed to pressure from the prominent members of the Congo Reform Association – including writers such as Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad – and annexed the Congo to save it from Belgium’s own king.

What had begun under the guise of philanthropy had ended as one of the most egregious examples of exploitation during Europe’s scramble for Africa.

More than a century later, the parallels with FIFA’s exploitation of South Africa are hard to miss. Under the guise of bringing untold gifts to the country, we were awarded the right to host FIFA’s show-piece quadrennial event, the World Cup. Not only would South Africa derive economic profit, but it would benefit from philanthropy projects that ensure the World Cup is not just a short-term fillip to the country, but leaves a lasting legacy.

Just as there were, undoubtedly, some Congolese who benefited from learning to read and write, or profited from the trade in rubber, FIFA has been unable to corral all possible profits on the part of South Africans. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

It shanghaied our government into granting it special rights that no other firm operating in South Africa – local or foreign – enjoys. It imposed licences and royalties on firms designed in such a way that only its large international partners could benefit, while the local tourism industry was largely excluded. FIFA’s fascism extended to dictating what free people may eat, drink and wear, and its jackboots went after anything that smacked of free enterprise outside the control of the FIFA cartel. Even orange dresses – which I’ll be wearing if the Netherlands makes it to the final this weekend – were taboo, to the astonishment of the Dutch government, whose nationals were arrested on criminal charges.

When asked to justify the billions of tax-free loot it rakes in on the back of South Africa’s massive expenditure on grand stadiums with spectacular views, FIFA’s secretary-general, Jérôme Valcke, made the astonishing observation that 80% of African countries “would not have football” were it not for the profits of FIFA.

This comment should offend Africans to their core.

For a start, FIFA’s development budget in 2009 was just $172 million. As James Corrigan pointed out in The Independent, that compares roughly with the development budget of the Manchester City Football Club. It includes $70 million for African football development, though the official campaign of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, “Football for Hope”, was granted a mere $2.2 million.
In the context of the billions it makes, tax-free, FIFA’s funding of football development is hardly mind-blowing.

As if to emphasise this, Joseph Blatter, the president of FIFA and spiritual heir of King Leopold of the Congo, delivered himself of this gem: “There’s a saying, ’God helps those who help themselves.’ So it is up to South Africa to take the legacy we have created – the infrastructure and the popularity of football – and to make it work.”

Excuse me, Your Royal Highness, but if I recall correctly South Africa created all the infrastructure and will be paying for it for years to come. And when South Africa proposed to upgrade a stadium in Athlone, an area that could use some development, you complained about the horrible view of poor people’s shacks, and insisted that a far more expensive stadium be built in Green Point, with pretty sea and mountain views. Clearly, it is not “up to South Africa”.

As if to test Valcke’s theory about needing FIFA money to play football in Africa, a pair of Dutch supporters asked me one evening about arranging an impromptu football match.

We chose a pitch that had not benefited from any World Cup-related funding, in White Location, Knysna. Armed with a few second-hand shirts donated by friends in Holland, we arrived at the pitch the next morning, to find a few children already playing. Within minutes, we had a proper 11-a-side game going. The refereeing left a lot to be desired, but then, I was taking photos too, and must admit that the combination of modern technology and inexperience really does detract from refereeing. (View a selection of pictures.)

The notion that Africans need the help of patronising neo-colonialists such as FIFA to play football is deeply condescending, and at root, racist. Africans are perfectly capable of playing football without the modern King Leopold’s philanthropy.

“God helps those who help themselves.” Read: We’ve made our money; our job here is done. Goodbye and good luck, darkest Africa.


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