South Africa 2010: 'The most serious risk is carjacking'

Private security specialists in high demand as World Cup's VIP visitors seek to protect themselves from kidnap

If you want to hire an armoured vehicle to get around South Africa at next year's World Cup, you are probably too late. "I'd be surprised if they aren't all booked," says Charlie Taylor of the Longmoor Group, a niche security firm based in the UK but with extensive experience in danger zones around the world, southern Africa included.

Why would a World Cup visitor want an armoured vehicle? Most won't, of course, or can't afford one. Instead they will have to adhere to all the widely available advice about sticking to the beaten track, travelling in groups and staying vigilant. But any number of VIPs, corporate guests, A-list celebrities, billionaire club owners, and millionaire players and their families are in the market for A-Team back-up.

"We're talking seriously, seriously rich," says Taylor of the type of Longmoor client who will hire close protection (bodyguards and related services) from the moment they step on their private jet to leave home to the moment they return from the tournament.

"The biggest risk to any principal [client] is while he's on the move," explains Taylor of the emphasis on vehicles. "And the most serious single realistic risk factor in South Africa will be carjacking, which in certain situations has the potential to develop into a K&R [kidnap and ransom] scenario.

"Top-of-the-range executive vehicles are just part of the package but if you haven't already booked an armoured car for 2010, you'll struggle because of the demand."

The Longmoor Group employs only former Royal Military Police, former police, and officers who have had personal instruction from their director of training, Chris Brice. Until recently Brice was RMP himself – he was in charge of the close protection of General Sir Richard Dannatt (in Kosovo and in Iraq) and for the US's General David Petraeus in Iraq.

Longmoor's clients at the World Cup will include "private high-net worths", although no teams. Those assignments are described by Taylor as a "nightmare" logistically, "if only because of the scale of the operation, of looking after such a large group".

The threat of kidnap is not deemed as serious in South Africa as in some of the world's troubled regions, notably parts of South America and in the former Soviet bloc. With South Africa's domestic security forces and private agencies also used by some football associations for "double safety", it would take an audacious plot – or lax behaviour – for a player or family member to be snatched.

But while Dimitar Berbatov's latest reported brush with would-be Mafia kidnappers has been dismissed as hype by his agent, and a threat to David Beckham and his family from a Romanian gang in 2001 was overblown in a tabloid splash, there have been enough serious, often tragic, football cases to warrant concern (see panel).

One of the biggest global security firms is Control Risks. Its current assignments include work in Iraq for the British government and Foreign Office. "[K&R work] is still a fundamental part of what we do," says Dave Butler of Control Risks. "There is a whole unit of full-time staff who work on acute events in the corporate world."

Control Risk has 27 offices in five continents, working in all industry sectors, for private clients, corporations, governments and sporting bodies. The firm will open a new office in January in Johannesburg. Butler will be their top man there, and the office's first big project will be World Cup support.

"The South African authorities will take the security [of the athletes] very, very seriously," Butler says. "It's also natural that big countries [major football nations] with funds at their disposal will also make their own risk assessments and subsequent arrangements specific to their own plans. We're in negotiations with a number of FAs about risk assessment."

Control Risks worked at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and has worked closely with Fifa, football's world governing body. It provided security at last month's Under-17s World Cup in Nigeria.

"Our VIP product includes a protection officer, a vehicle with tracking, and a trained driver, all to stay with the group wherever they are," Butler says. The "standard" product involves a dedicated security adviser who chaperones a group, "24/7", and has intimate knowledge of every hotel, venue, restaurant and route the clients will use.

Further support in Johannesburg will come from Control Risk's partnership with International SOS, a firm that provides emergency support including medical treatment and evacuation services.

All clients receive standard advice to stay on the beaten track and "have a heightened sense of security awareness". Butler says: "Don't take taxis in the street – only use hotel cars or a trusted cab firm." On driving, he adds: "You just don't drive around Jo'burg with a laptop bag visible in the back of your car." Even if you can rent an armoured one.

Held to ransom: Footballing kidnaps

* Edwin, brother of Tottenham midfielder, Wilson Palacios, was kidnapped in Honduras in 2007. His body was found in May 2009.

* Robinho's mother Marina fell victim in Sao Paulo in 2004 but was let go after a £50,000 ransom was paid.

* Levan, brother of Milan's Kakha Kaladze, was kidnapped and killed in 2001. His body was found in 2005.

* Norum, brother of Everton's Joseph Yobo, was taken in 2008 in Nigeria. Released after ransom paid.

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