Football: Africans will fight for their dream

The impressive team of Tony Blair, Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Bobby Charlton may not be able to sway football's top man.
Click to follow
HOWEVER HARD Tony Blair tried to persuade the Fifa president Sepp Blatter yesterday that England deserved to host the World Cup in 2006, in South Africa there is a growing belief that they are already strong front-runners to stage the tournament.

The red carpet was brought out for the new leader of world football at Downing Street and, later, at a reception at the foreign office attended by Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Bobby Charlton and other eminent British football ambassadors.

But the latest public relations exercise by England's campaign team, headed by bid director Alec McGiven, did nothing to dissuade their counterparts in Johannesburg that they were in prime position to fight off Britain when the final decision is made.

Danny Jordaan, campaign director for South Africa's $20m (pounds 12.5m) bid, says he has already been promised support from Fifa members across the world and that England and Germany will be sadly disappointed in March 2000, as will Brazil and Australia, who are also considering whether to bid.

"Fifa simply cannot go into the 21st century having had 17 World Cups since 1930, nine of them in Europe and not one on the African continent," Jordaan said. "If the tournament really is supposed to be rotated, it has to be Africa's turn."

Jordaan is quick, however, to dispel any notion that his campaign is based purely on emotional factors. He knows full well how shocked Athens was to miss out on the centenary Olympic Games and is making every effort to ensure that the world knows that South Africa, which has already staged the rugby union World Cup, has the facilities, the infrastructure and, crucially, the commercial nous to stage football's far more expansive version.

"We have a first-class banking and financial system and some of the best hotels in the world," he said. "What people don't seem to realise either is that we already have better stadiums than you do in Europe. All of ours are modern whereas most of those in England were built in the 1950s or 1960s, or even before, and have needed upgrading."

Jordaan also believes that Blatter, like his predecessor Joao Havelange, would love nothing more than to have the tournament staged in Africa. Indeed Blatter, perhaps somewhat presumptuously, is even named personally as a supporter of South Africa's bid in their official campaign brochure. "We know what Mr Blatter's position is, whatever he says in England," Jordaan said. "The truth of the matter is that he wants the World Cup to come here."

The one area that Jordaan and his team are most sensitive about is crime, which has been rampant as post-apartheid South Africa moves slowly and painfully towards democracy. Privately, English and German bid officials believe that South Africa's increasing reputation as a dangerous place to visit could seriously damage its bid.

Jordaan disagrees. "Crime is part of a transition in any country," he said, "but the fact remains that we have never once had a serious crime- related football incident. Most of the crime takes place in the poorer social areas of the country, away from our stadiums. Are you telling me that there is no crime in London or Manchester?"

Jordaan even disputes the notion that Euro 96, the friendly nature of which is being used by McGiven's team as a major public relations tool, was as crime-free as we have been led to believe. "The comparison between England and South Africa in terms of crime is quite instructive," he said. "The perception that crime was negligible at Euro 96 is wrong. We have seen the police figures and there were certainly problems outside the stadiums."

With 57 of its finest professionals now playing overseas, many of them in the English Premiership, and a national team that is highly regarded despite a disappointing campaign at France 98, South Africa can have no fears about losing the vote over any inadequacies on the field.

Everyone knows, however, that what matters is off the field where a political game of intrigue, bluff and counter-bluff will intensify over the coming months. Jordaan is leaving nothing to chance. A European visit is on the agenda (cities and dates to be decided) to capture any wavering votes.

He is convinced there will be quite a few because of Europe's frustrating inability to unite behind one block vote. "We believe a unified position by the Europeans will prove extremely difficult," Jordaan said. "This can only have advantages for South Africa."

McGiven and his team may feel that Blatter, who said all the right things yesterday, owes England one. After all, he received the English vote to become Fifa president when most of the rest of Europe opted for the chief of their governing body, Uefa's Lennart Johansson.

If the South Africans are right, however, it will take more than a visit to Downing Street and a lot of handshakes to prevent footballing history being made in eight years time.