Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mugabe, Soccer and the World Cup

As many know, the runoff election in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and it's social and political implications have caused a wide amount of fervor in the world press.

Many see the runoff election against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a front, citing the violence and intimidation tactics used by Mugabe's supporters as a testament to the ruined democracy in the former Rhodesia.

The violence became so bad that Tsvangirai dropped out of the race last week, saying the runoff election was a joke and that his dropping out would prevent the deaths of many more people.

It's a very sad situation in Zimbabwe these days. So what does soccer have to do with all this?

Think of the protests taking place in Tibet and around the world in opposition to the Chinese human-rights record ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics and you get an idea where we're headed with this.

Here, an Op-Ed article that appeared in this Tuesday's New York Times where author Peter Godwin argues that maybe 'Zimbabwe should become to the South Africa-hosted World Cup what Tibet has been to the Beijing Olympics — the pungent albatross that spoils every press conference and mars every presentation with its insistent odor.'

He makes an interesting, thoughtful point. Take a read at the article here or click the link above for the enlightening read.

Soccer 1, Mugabe 0

by Peter Godwin

IN these last few weeks, the full nature of Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime in Zimbabwe has been cruelly exposed. With his increasingly brazen resort to torture and hit squads to terrorize his own people, Mr. Mugabe has crossed a moral line. Some United Nations lawyers now say there is enough evidence to charge him with crimes against humanity.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change and Mr. Mugabe’s opponent in Friday’s runoff presidential election, had little choice but to pull out of the race. (Mr. Tsvangirai has taken refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare.) Proceeding with elections would have ensured the murder of even more of his supporters. Any middle ground in this conflict has disappeared.

Standing amid the ruins of Zimbabwe looms the vacillating, dithering, morally compromised figure of Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa — hitherto the point man in the region — who was supposed to help ensure a free and fair outcome in the Zimbabwean election. Even at this late stage, with death squads on the move, Mr. Mbeki is still trying to persuade the Movement for Democratic Change to participate as a junior partner in some sort of Kenya-style unity government.

Mr. Tsvangirai and his followers — who have remained nonviolent, participated in three rigged elections and tried to inhabit “democratic space” as it diminished to a sliver — are understandably loath to join in an administration with the very people who have been attacking them. What’s more, joining would only reward Mr. Mugabe for his violent repression. The solution for Zimbabwe is simple: a free and fair election.

The international community has no choice but to delegitimize Mr. Mugabe’s regime. For a start, the “results” of Friday’s election should not be recognized. In effect, the world should no longer acknowledge Mr. Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s president. And should the opposition set up a government in exile, the West should move to deal with that government instead, based on the results of the March election, in which Mr. Tsvangirai drew more votes than Mr. Mugabe.

Of course, South Africa could use its economic power to draw Mr. Mugabe’s rule to an end in weeks rather than months. Yet Mr. Mbeki has steadfastly refused to act, providing a protective cloak for Mr. Mugabe’s repression. And just a few weeks ago, even as opposition members were being tortured, Mr. Mbeki visited Zimbabwe, allowing himself to be garlanded at the airport and displayed on state-run TV with a broadly grinning Mr. Mugabe. In the United Nations Security Council, where South Africa currently has a seat, Mr. Mbeki has opposed attempts to put the political situation in Zimbabwe on the agenda.

If Mr. Mbeki’s cost-benefit calculus has been such that he hasn’t seen it necessary to take tougher action, perhaps it’s time to change that calculus. Perhaps, for example, now is not the time for you to book a safari to South Africa. Or for you, or any institution that manages your funds, to make new investments in the country.

Most important, there is the FIFA soccer World Cup, for which South Africa is to act as host in 2010. That may seem like a long way off, but South Africa is already investing huge amounts both financially and politically, for what is supposed to be its triumphal coming-out party. Maybe Zimbabwe should become to the South Africa-hosted World Cup what Tibet has been to the Beijing Olympics — the pungent albatross that spoils every press conference and mars every presentation with its insistent odor.

Perhaps it’s time to share the Zimbabweans’ pain, to help persuade Mr. Mbeki to bear down on its source by threatening to grab the world’s soccer ball and take our games elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jordaan Speaks and We Listen

When the chief executive officer for the 2010 World Cup organizing committee Danny Jordaan speaks, we tend to listen.

Not only is the man educated and inspired, he's the head of South Africa's efforts to make the first-ever African World Cup a riveting success.

Today, two separate Jordaan tidbits.

Jordaan is tired of being asked whether the nation will have everything ready on time.

He also says the 2010 tournament will be the most commercially successful in soccer history.

'We are selling tickets and people still ask 'Will you be ready?''' Jordaan said Tuesday on a visit to the Euro 2008 tournament.

''The teams are playing qualification for the World Cup in South Africa. These national teams, if they just look on their sleeves, they will see 2010 World Cup South Africa. That's what they are playing for. So it is a reality.''

Jordaan helped South Africa become host after it was narrowly beaten by Germany in voting for the 2006 World Cup. He said critics who thought FIFA had arranged a backup host were wrong.

''I think it was misconception in the world that there was a so-called Plan B,'' said Jordaan, chief executive officer of the South African 2010 organizing committee. ''It was just not real. I think it's a lack of understanding. I think it's ignorance, frankly.''

''If there was an issue around the hosting of the World Cup in South Africa, then the commercial partners of FIFA, the big multinational companies who actually pay to be associated with the event, would say, 'We want to pay less for South Africa than for Germany. You might give us a discount,' '' he said.

''Did they insist on a discount? No. Are they paying more? Yes. That is why you find that the German World Cup generated $2.8 billion. The commercial program is not done yet, but South African World Cup is generating $3.2 billion. So which World Cup has produced the highest revenue in the history of FIFA? The 2010 World Cup. It's outperformed every other World Cup.''

MY POV: Please click the link to read more of Jordaan's comments. You have to admire the fire and passion Mr. Jordaan has for the South African Cup. He believes and makes us believe in the process. I think he's right on every point. SA 2010 is going to be a tremendous success ...

But wait, there's more!

Jordaan thinks an African team can reach the 2010 World Cup final. Why not??

"African players like Eto'o, Drogba and Essien are now among the best players in the top leagues in the world," he told a news conference at the Euro 2008 tournament.

"African teams will be able to compete in 2010. By 2010, African teams will have the correct level of support to be major contenders.

"That shows the progress African football has made over the last five years."

Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Ghana's Michael Essien have become key figures at top European clubs. Eto'o helped Barcelona win the 2006 Champions League, while Drogba and Essien have enjoyed trophy success in England with Chelsea.

No African team has gone beyond the quarter-finals of any World Cup to date. A last eight place was achieved by Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.

"We want to see an African team in the final for the first time," Jordaan said, adding there were a number of nations who had shown they could do well in the finals, including Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.

"There is no reason that an African team cannot reach the final on African soil," he said.

"Football in Africa can create a truly wonderful celebration," he said.

MY POV: We're with you there, Danny. Now can you please help me get to SA? PLEASE?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Alternative World Cup: Not FIFA, But VIVA!

I'm back from my travels in Spain and happy to see them doing so well in the European Cup.

But what struck me today after almost two weeks away was this interesting article about an alternative World Cup from today's Guardian.

According to the article, this cup, dubbed the Viva World Cup is 'an inter-national competition designed for countries that remain unrecognized by FIFA'.

The tournament will take place in the wannabe nation of Sapmi (Lapland, more or less). The first match of the Viva World Cup 2008, Sapmi v Iraqi Kurdistan, kicks off on July 7 at 11pm. I wonder where I can watch this ... You think watching African football is hard. Try getting coverage of these games.

Anyways, the first Viva World Cup was held in 2006, but due to political arguments, logistical difficulties (the venue had to be switched from Northern Cyprus to Occitania) and visa problems, only four teams participated. This time there are five men's teams - the other three are Syriac, Padania and Provence - and two women's (Sapmi and Kurdistan).

The tournament has been set up by the New Federations Board, established to represent nations which aren't recognized as sovereign states. Its members include Monaco (not to be confused with the club side), Tibet, Zanzibar, Somaliland, Romani Nation (representing Romani people around the world), South Moluccas, Rijeka (Croatia's third largest city, which was briefly a free state in the 1920s) and the Chagos Islands.

Some of the claims to independence are in deadly earnest (provisional member Chechnya, for example), while others are more fanciful. Even Sealand, a micronation set up in 1967 on an abandoned steel platform in the North Sea, six miles off Suffolk, fields a national team, though in their case they have appointed Danish side FC Vestbjerg to play on their behalf.

MY POV: This is just incredible stuff ... an alternative World Cup for countries not recognized by FIFA ... give them all the credit in the world. They believe they are countries, no matter what anyone says. Let's hope the Cup goes off without a hitch. And that Sealand puts on a good display against Monaco.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Two Years to 2010 World Cup

So here we are, a mere two years until the start of South Africa's World Cup, the 2010 championships.

The opening game will be played on June 11, 2010 at Johannesburg's 94,000-seat Soccer City Stadium.

Organizing committee chief executive Danny Jordaan told Reuters the total cost for the 10 venues is likely to go well above the budget of $1.24 billion. That's some serious change.

"Final costs of the stadiums are soaring as a result of the downturn in the world economy," said Jordaan.

"We don't know what the final impact of the economic downturn and rising fuel prices will be on our costs. It's unfortunately a moving target."

But Jordaan is confident that the first World Cup to be played in Africa will make the continent proud.

"I think what we've achieved since May 2004 gives me a level of contentment and confidence that the event will be a success." he said.

"I'm happy with how quickly we have come along and with the legacy we're going to leave for football in this country. Our stadiums will be world class."

South Africa are upgrading five existing venues and building five new stadiums for the 32-team tournament.

The budget for stadium construction and renovation has risen by over 60% from the initial estimate. Wow!

The South African team had a minor boost with a 4-1 defeat of Equatorial Guinea in the combined 2010 World Cup and African Cup of Nations qualifiers over the weekend.

But the team still has some way to go if it is to be a force at the World Cup, under new Brazilian coach Joel Santana.

MY POV: I can't believe it's only two years until the start of the 2010 finals. It feels like only yesterday I started this blog in Brooklyn. Now we're only two years away and I STILL don't have a plan in place for getting there ... better get on the ball, eh?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Africans at Euro 2008

So the best soccer tournament in the world gets underway tomorrow, Euro 2008.

Why is it the best? For starters, almost every team in the tournament deserves to be there, save Austria and Switzerland.

Also, since the field is kept at a minimum (16), the level of mediocrity found at the World Cup isn't seen. It's the best of the best. Italy. Spain. Holland. Germany. Name a team and you're bound to name a footballing giant.

Surprises abound. Look at Greece four years ago in Portugal or Denmark in 1988.

In terms of continental competitions, I'd rate the Euros a step above the African Cup of Nations (which has rapidly become a major competition) and the Copa America, South America's championship.

My pick for 2008? Spain. It's their time. I'm also the writer of the Spain Euro 2008 blog, so I'm biased. But really, they're due.

So today's BBC has an article about players of African origin playing in the distinguished tournament. Quite fascinating to see so many players who can trace their direct roots back to Africa.

France has the biggest contingent of African players.

Patrick Vieira
and Patrice Evra hail from Senegal, Claude Makelele and Steve Mandanda were born in Kinshasa, Sidney Govou is the son of a former Benin international, and Lassana Diarra has roots in Mali.

Samir Nasri and rising star Karim Benzema are of Algerian origin.

Nasri has been nicknamed the 'new Zidane', as the greatest of France's players of African origin grew up like him in the south of France in an Algerian family.

The latest addition to the French squad is Bafetimbi Gomis, who hesitated between France and Senegal, before scoring a double on his debut for the Blues last month.

But the list doesn't end there. To see who else shares an African origin, please click the article link above. And please win this time, Spain!!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Zimbabwe Tickets Prices are $10 Billion!!

This is just beyond crazy ...

According to South Africa's Football365 website, fans wishing to watch Zimbabwe's 2010 World Cup/African Cup of Nations qualifier against Namibia on Sunday will have to fork out up to $10 billion for a ticket.

This isn't a joke. This is ridiculous!

The cheapest ticket is pegged at $1.5 billion!!!

However, those not keen to seat with the povo (a loose term referring to the common people of that country - to use Zimbabwe liberation struggle parlance) will have to pay either $5 billion for a seat in the Upper West stand or $10 billion for the VIP arena.

A full house is expected at the Rufaro stadium as a country ravaged by political turmoil and hyperinflation welcomes the opportunity to escape, albeit temporarily, the hardships of everyday life and finds reprieve in a game of football.

Zimbabwe pulled off one of the surprise results of the opening round of the 2010 qualifiers by holding Guinea to a goalless draw last weekend.

They will be hoping to build on that result by getting the better of early group leaders Namibia, who beat Kenya 2-1 in the opener last Saturday.

The match between the two African rivals, who both go by the same moniker - Zimbabwe simply known as 'The Warriors' and Namibia as 'Brave Warriors' - is accorded derby status. Bragging rights will also be at stake.

MY POV: Inflation has dragged this country's dollar way, way down. Having a derelict like Robert Mugabe in power doesn't help. While I don't intend to make this a political blog and stoke the flames, I do think he's an awful politician and a virtual dictator ...

Ok, with that out of the way, let's also say that $10 billion Zimbabwe dollars is worth about $1.69 American dollars ...

Still, take a look at this article about the Zimbabwean economy ... according to the article, a loaf of bread now costs what 12 new cars did a decade ago.

Inflation rose 1,063,572% in May ... ridiculous ...

The economic decline has been blamed on the collapse of key agriculture sectors following the violent seizures of farmland from whites. Mugabe claimed the seizures begun in 2002 were to benefit poor blacks, but many of the farms went to his loyalists.

Let's hope Zimbabwe does better in World Cup qualifiers than they've done in politics. The people there deserve that, at least ...

USA World Cup 2022? Warner Says So ...

"My message to the USA - and they don't have to listen - is to try to make a deal for 2022."

With those words, FIFA vice-president Jack Warner effectively ended all hopes of a 2018 USA World Cup. Warner presumably wants to leave 2018 open for an English bid to host the coveted soccer tournament.

Warner, the president of CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean and has three of the 24 votes in the bidding process, is broadly supportive of England's bid but admits it would be "political suicide" for him not to back a US campaign first.

However Warner believes the US would do better bidding for 2022 - FIFAwill decide on both hosts at the same time in 2011 - and should agree a deal to stand aside.

In an interview with BBC Radio Five Live, Warner said: "I have to convince them not to bid. It is easier for me to convince America to wait until 2022. I don't think they will be able to get as many of the votes as they will need [in 2018] for all kinds of reasons. I have said to England that until America gets knocked out that's where my vote will have to go.

"My message to the USA - and they don't have to listen - is to try to make a deal for 2022 and I'm quite sure that would have universal support. The kind of discussion I would have between England and the US is 'Will you support me in 2022?"'

Warner's backing for England was cemented by the friendly against his home country Trinidad and Tobago over the weekend. He said the challenge for 2018 was to do the same in other parts of the world.

He added: "England left behind a positive impression that will last for decades and they have to replicate that in other areas."

Warner had previously accused the hierarchy at the English FA of being "faceless" and "cold" while urging it to increase its political pro activity and to tap into David Beckham's celebrity to help secure the tournament for the first time in over half a century.

MY POV: What does one make of this? One day he's for the USA bid, the next he's not.
I don't know. Either way, I'd love to see the tournament here again. So we go from South Africa to Brazil to England and then here ... what about Asia? I guess the rotation system is dead in the water, eh?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Overcrowding at Fault for Deaths in Liberia-Gambia Match

Stadium issues have reared their ugly face in Africa again as at least eight Liberian football fans died this weekend in Monrovia, Liberia during their country's opening World Cup qualifier against Gambia.

A BBC correspondent in Monrovia says many fake tickets were in circulation, leading to overcrowding at the 33,000 capacity Samuel K. Doe stadium.

As the problem became apparent, UN peacekeepers closed the gates to the stadium, leaving thousands outside.

One fan told the BBC that Liberian police were reselling tickets to fans.

"We saw people, security men, entering, getting tickets from those who had crossed over boards, jumping over the fence and bringing the same tickets back outside, selling them to people for a little or nothing," said Lee Francis, who was unable to get into the game.

The Liberian Football Association (LFA) believe the deaths were caused mainly by suffocation at one of the ground's crowded gates.

The secretary general of the LFA George Williams admitted his association was responsible, but said the situation could have been much worse.

"Generally, we know we had a situation where there were more people at the game than the stadium could cater for," he said.

"The repercussions were that there was overcrowding at a particular gate and that then led to suffocation, which is unfortunate."

"We had fire trucks that were there to spill water over the crowd and that really helped the overall situation. Them spraying water over the people reduced the level of suffocation and also helped the crowd calm down."

"Yes, we (the LFA) are responsible, but things could have been worse.

"At the moment, we know that eight people have been killed. There are injuries as well, but these are not that significant."

Meanwhile the president of the Football Association of Zambian (Faz), Kalusha Bwalya, has told BBC Sport that the tragedy in Liberia should be a warning to the rest of the continent.

The former African Footballer of the Year also recently inspected safety and security at the main stadium in Sierra Leone on behalf of football's world governing body FIFA.

"In terms of the ongoing qualifiers this should be a wake up call for everybody to ensure that we don't have a repeat where we are going to endanger our spectators," he said.

"Eighty per cent lies with the associations in Africa - so that we provide the necessary security and the necessary rules and regulations so people without tickets don't go to the stadium.

"Twenty per cent lies with the supporters themselves - so that they won't want to come to the stadium without a ticket and thereby cause a problem."

MY POV: This is a situation that could have been avoided. But who prevents these situations from happening? Football associations? FIFA?

Maybe the responsibility lies on the supporters, who stream by the hundreds into games they don't have tickets to.

But then again, can one blame them for wanting to see their superstars perform in World Cup qualifiers?

Stricter security needs to be a priority for future World Cup qualifiers.

We're not talking about security guards who exacerbate the situation by selling fake tickets to the throngs. We mean FIFA-run security forces that will make sure the proper amount of people get into the stadiums with the least amount of corruption.

It's all well and good to want the stadiums to be safe for the supporters.
But when too many people are let inside, not even the most modern of stadia will hold under the pressure.