Shootings, fraud and kidnapping cloud World Cup bid

South African government moves to restructure football as scandals threaten to damage campaign to stage 2006 tournament
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The Independent Football

Big brother, in the form of the South African Sports Minister, Ngconde Balfour, has seen enough. Now he has decided to step in to resolve the disquiet that has not so much crept into football, but has barged right through the front door.

Big brother, in the form of the South African Sports Minister, Ngconde Balfour, has seen enough. Now he has decided to step in to resolve the disquiet that has not so much crept into football, but has barged right through the front door.

Balfour, however, has made it clear that he does not want the government to run the sport. "We firmly believe that soccer should be run by soccer, but what has been going on is of deep concern. We have to ensure that the structures are right and that we are in tune with one another well before the Fifa technical committee gets to South Africa early next year for the 2006 World Cup bid," he said.

Just what has been going on to prompt government intervention? Hardly handbags at 10 paces stuff.

The Premier Soccer League's chief executive, Joe Ndhlela, claims that six shots were fired at his residence a fortnight ago, allegations that were, at the time, questioned by some of his arch-rivals, powerful men like club owners Irvin Khoza and Kaizer Motaung.

In a twist on Tuesday, Ndhlela was arrested by police at his Johannesburg offices for alleged fraud estimated at millions of pounds. Ndhlela was appointed Premier Soccer League chief executive in January, succeeding Trevor Phillips, who launched the PSL in July 1996.

There was the kidnapping and subsequent death threat issued to Walter da Silva, the coach of the Premiership side Moroka Swallows, following a string of poor results suffered by his side; clashes in the glare of the media spotlight between high-profile owners of Premiership clubs, and a mini-riot in a recent Rothmans Cup semi-final match between heavyweights Sundowns and Pirates.

A Premiership match had to be postponed when match officials failed to turn up. Then there was the bizarre sequence of events relating to the Rothmans Cup knockout competition, where the losing quarter-finalists, Free State Stars, and Jomo Cosmos have been to arbitration and back during the past few weeks over eligibility of players, so that the identity of the opponents for Manning Rangers was only decided in favour of Stars just 24 hours before the second leg of the semi-final was scheduled.

Confused? Not as much as the South African footballing fraternity which, probably for the first time, decided to vote with their feet, with only 37,000 people turning out to watch the League match between the Pirates v Kaizer Chiefs less than a fortnight ago.

That crowd was not even half of which was expected at the FNB Stadium outside Johannesburg - the proposed venue for the 2006 World Cup opening ceremony and final. In fact, this season in particular, Premiership crowds have been disappointing.

While the Sports Minister has seen fit to intervene - calling on the controlling body, the SA Football Association, to report back to him by 31 January - the chief executive of the 2006 World Cup bid committee, Danny Jordaan, appears unfazed. "The controversies in South Africa have not been a talking point here. None of the issues back home have been raised in the press here. It is only journalists in South Africa who are linking issues at home to the World Cup bid," Jordaan said in Auckland last week, where the Under-17 World Championship was unfolding.

"Issues like the disputes in the Rothmans Cup will be resolved and a few months down the line it will be over, but Fifa is more concerned about our infrastructure and whether or not we have the capacity to stage the World Cup.

"You must remember it was not so long ago that England also had similar problems. These [South African controversies] are internal matters which must be resolved by the people concerned."

Jordaan has consistently attempted to blow holes in the bids of both England and Germany, South Africa's two biggest rivals for 2006. From a historic and geographical view, he knows his bid is a big runner.

Ever the optimist, he steadfastly refuses to believe that on-the-field skirmishes, off-the-field rivalries and boardroom blundering will affect his country's package.

However, Sports Minister Balfour thinks differently and is trying to prevent South Africa 2006 from being derailed before reaching the home straight next year.

Jordaan and other positive-thinkers feel that the country's infrastructure, telecommunications system and proven ability to host major events will carry far more influence with Fifa than the current malaise.

He does have a point. Not only did South Africa stage, and win, the 1996 African Nations' Cup, but the country also provided arguably the most successful Rugby World Cup (1995) held thus far, while the next Cricket World Cup (2003) will be hosted here. This year the All-Africa Games were presented in Johannesburg, and this event was lauded in some circles as yet another example of the country's ability to stage events at the highest level.

From a playing point of view, South Africa have the personnel to improve on their first-round exit at France 98.

Regulars for the national team, ironically nicknamed Bafana Bafana (a Xhosa phrase for Boys, Boys), include many who ply their trade in Europe. The Leeds captain, Lucas Radebe, is a household name in England, Quinton Fortune is on Manchester United's books, Phil Masinga is at the Serie A side Bari, Benni McCarthy at Celta Vigo, Shaun Bartlett at Zurich and Hans Vonk at Heerenveen.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the 1-0 victory over a weakened Sweden last Saturday was the first South Africa has had against European opposition. Damage has, with respect to Jordaan, already been done. Now it is all about limiting it.

Last week Gordon Igesund, the coach of the Rothmans Cup semi-finalists Manning Rangers, questioned South Africa's ability to stage the World Cup after the Free State Stars-Jomo Cosmos arbitration problem. "If we can't hold one competition featuring 18 teams, how can we expect to hold a World Cup featuring 32 countries?" Igesund voiced.

Yet South Africa has some of the best spin doctors in the world. High violent crime statistics are calmly explained away and even the weekend's blast in a Cape Town restaurant, where 48 people were injured by a pipe bomb, was relegated to inside pages two days later.

Spin doctors correctly point out that there were no casualties during the 1995 RWC and the 1996 African Nations' Cup, while the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, which was attended by the Queen, was held in Durban last month and there was no breach of security.

Bombs in Soho and Brick Lane in London earlier this year prove that acts of terrorism are not unique to any country. South Africans are a resilient lot and as long as Sepp Blatter, the president of the international federation, continues to endorse the 2006 bid, then other incidents are seen as mere distractions in the grand scheme of things.

Gary Lemke is the sports editor of the 'Sunday Tribune' in Durban.