A diplomatic dispute broke out last night over the fate of two Dutch women in orange mini-dresses who were arrested at a World Cup match.
The Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, attempted to come to their rescue, accusing tournament organisers Fifa and the South African authorities of heavy handedness for pressing criminal charges on the women, who are accused of illegally advertising an “unofficial” brand of beer during a match.
The pair, named as Barbara Castelein and Minte Niewpoort, were among a 36-strong group ejected from the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg for wearing orange dresses which carried a small tag advertising the Dutch beer brand Bavaria, which is not one of the licensed World Cup sponsors.
The women face charges under South Africa’s Merchandise Marks Act and the Special Measures Regulations, and are accused of the “unauthorised use of a trade mark at a protected event” and “entry into a designated area while in possession of a prohibited commercial object” at the game between Holland and Denmark two days ago.
They were freed from prison after paying 10,000 rand (£890) in bail and surrendering their passports. They are due to appear back at Johannesburg Magistrates' Court on 22 June. If found guilty they could be imprisoned for up to six months.
Mr Verhagen called the criminal charges “absurd” and “disproportionate”. “It is outrageous that the two women have a jail term hanging over their heads for wearing orange dresses in a football stadium,” he said.
“If South Africa or Fifa wants to take a company to task for an illegal marketing action, they should start judicial procedures against the company and not against ordinary citizens walking around in orange dresses.”
The women were using tickets allocated to the former Jamaica player and ITV pundit Robbie Earle, who was subsequently sacked by the broadcaster.
The saga has brought plenty of attention to the Bavaria beer brand it would not otherwise have enjoyed.
Nick Johnson, head of advertising and sponsorship law at international law firm Osborne Clarke, warned FIFA to be “very careful” of the potential for backlash against it and its official sponsors.
“You have to question whether it’s appropriate for Fifa’s business interests to be protected with such draconian criminal sanctions,” he said, adding: “Shouldn’t South Africa’s police and courts be focusing their resources on more pressing priorities?”
Fifa spokesman Nicolas Maingot said: “Fifa has filed charges against the organisers of the ambush marketing stunt pulled during the Netherlands v Denmark match at Soccer City two days ago. No charges have been brought against the young women used in this illicit activity.
“The matter is now under criminal investigation and the South African Police Service is proceeding as per the normal legislation.”