Saturday, July 10, 2010
Lessons to learn before Brazil 2014
When Sepp Blatter opened the white envelope marked 'South Africa' six years ago, he knew his very reputation was on the line.
Blatter had battled tirelessly for the World Cup to come to the African continent, scrapping the system of rotation to make sure that, after the debacle of 2006, the last great untapped hotbed of football finally got its turn.
Succeed despite a growing swell of naysayers, and the FIFA president could be pretty much assured of an unprecedented fourth term of office at the top table when he stands for re-election in 2011. Fail, and his credibility would collapse like the proverbial deck of cards.
Blatter knew this better than anyone. Hence the reason why, time after time before the tournament he insisted there was no plan B; and why, during the last month itself, he has repeatedly flagged up the event as the best ever.
Whether that's true on the pitch is a matter for debate after Sunday's final, excepted to be watched by a record 740 million people. Off the field, whether Blatter likes it or not, there are lessons to be learned.
While the FIFA president can point to the fact that there were no major outbreaks of fan violence and few of the anticipated safety and security nightmares, there were still areas that fell well short of expectations and will have to be tackled with a far less blasť attitude in the build-up to Brazil 2014.
The tournament may have at times been a playground for the world's rich and famous, with celebrities flocking to South Africa's biggest cities to soak up some of the action, but on the ground there was still considerable ground for improvement.
At the top of this list was the issue of tickets and making sure there is no repeat in Brazil of the vast empty spaces we saw, especially in the group phase. FIFA's insistence before the tournament that 97% of tickets had been sold hardly seemed credible. If that was indeed the case, then huge amounts of seats earmarked for the so-called "football family" - mainly sponsors and VIP bigwigs - were not taken up and needs to be thoroughly re-examined as a principle.
FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke admitted more than once that organisers were having trouble filling the smaller stadiums but even the larger ones were conspicuous by swathes of empty seats.
So what's the solution? Every World Cup is different and what works in Europe doesn't necessarily work in southern Africa. FIFA learned too late that selling tickets only over the internet was a huge error of judgement, a basic misunderstanding of South Africa's black fans, who make up the bulk of football supporters in this country. They are poor, they don't have bank accounts and they do not have access to the internet.
This was pointed out to FIFA last year when ticketing started, but it only took notice in the last few months. Over-the-counter sales - hugely publicised after worries about a slack take-up among local fans - should have taken place far sooner. This World Cup was marketed as not just for South Africa but for the continent as a whole. Yet only a trickle of fans arrived from other African countries. It is a warning that must be heeded for Brazil in four years' time.
Then there was opportunistic pricing both by airlines and by FIFA's single licensed agency, Match, whose prohibitive travel, accommodation and ticket packages - greed by any other name - deterred many fans. FIFA should ensure sure that Match, who also have sole rights to 2014, are subject to sanctions if they go down the same route next time.
To ensure full stadiums, FIFA in the end had no choice but to regrade category two and three tickets as category four seats, sold only to South African residents. But it could do nothing about the exploitative airline fares - in many cases double the normal price and a scandal for low- and middle-income families. For Brazil, a benchmark must be set to prevent airlines ripping off consumers.
Outside the ticketing issues and transport strategy, FIFA at last learned that it can't forever fly in the face of public opinion. Goal-line technology - the one issue on which players, managers, fans and officials all agree - will at last be back on the agenda among football's lawmakers come October with almost certain introduction, in some shape or form, by the time Brazil comes around . That is, if Blatter sticks to his guns and doesn't just use his promise to re-examine helping referees as an election ploy.
The likelihood of that is slim. Dragging their feet over technology, then once again kicking it firmly between the proverbials after he has secured a fourth term, would not look good, even on Blatter's CV.
In the meantime, FIFA is laughing all the way to the bank. Or is it? As a non-profit-making organisation under Swiss law it has to invest the bulk of the anticipated $2 billion surplus back into development programmes around the world, notably its highly-touted Goal programme.
The financial success of the World Cup is crucial because this is, in effect, the only source of income FIFA possesses. Hence, it maintains a large enough pot to guard against the cancellation of the finals through force majeure.
The cynics will point out, with some justification, that this is in stark contrast to the massive expense incurred by the host country. Financially, the World Cup may have been a great deal for FIFA, as virtually all of its revenue is contracted in advance via the sale of television and marketing rights, yet it is South Africa that has had to foot the enormous bill for infrastructure improvements.
This financial imbalance has given the expression "a game of two halves" a whole new meaning but Valcke insists it's a totally transparent way of operating. "We are not rich. We are making quite good money thanks to the World Cup, but that's the only money we have."