Before this week’s blood-curdling threats issued against me by the Justice for Hlophe Alliance force me into the obscurity of a witness-protection programme, I thought that, like the nation, now in thrall to the Confederations Cup, I’d switch attention from politics to soccer.
But I’ve discovered that there is more than a stitch or two that threads together two of our nation’s, and the world’s, favourite pastimes.
And I’ve also learnt another of the perils confronting the apprentice weekly columnist: the tyranny of the deadline. This prevents me from knowing whether yesterday’s clash between Bafana Bafana and Spain reclaimed our national honour or not.
But last Sunday’s opening between our boys and Iraq resulted in what that country’s latter-day conqueror, George W Bush, would have called an “underwhelming” performance.
We stuttered to a goalless draw, and our team ignored the advice of the Sunday Times’s soccer maven, Carlos Amato, who had warned them that nothing short of “Zen concentration” would achieve a win.
Presumably, the reason for South Africa not attaining the single-minded concentration demanded by 12th-century Japanese Buddhists was that their attention was elsewhere.
It brought to mind a withering put-down I once heard of the talented, but underperforming Pakistani cricket team: “They are more preoccupied with issues in the change room than with the state of play on the field.”
One of the change room issues apparently occupying the minds of our players was a demand for R34-million from Safa, should they win the eight-team tournament. This led sports writer Mninawa Ntloko to harrumph in Business Day that “Bafana’s shameless greed and blatant opportunism” could prove to be “the team’s undoing.”
Whether their backdown from this “ransom attempt”, or opening-night nerves, or some other malady explained our disappointing loss of mojo is not known.
But, whatever perils await the Iraqi team back home, the advantage of post-Saddam Iraq is that their soccer team does not have to reckon with Saddam Hussein’s psychopathic elder son, Uday.
Apparently, a performance not to his liking could result in torture sessions, which included “ritual head-shavings”, “punching and slapping”, “sessions of kicking a concrete ball”, and “fitness work-outs that lasted 12 hours”.
But the international spotlight now shining on South Africa for the Confederations Cup has encouraged other sectors to ventilate their demands, and use the tournament as leverage to enforce them.
This week, the beleaguered and leaderless SABC was threatened by its unions with a blackout of Confed match coverage unless pay demands in excess of 12% were met.
Quite how the national broadcaster — R800-million in the red and seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout of R2-billion — intends to even pay its proffered 8.5% increase is an accounting mystery, a little like the creative book-keeping of our newly enthroned Ponzi king, Barry Tannenbaum.
A union official put the blackmail in straightforward terms: “No agreement, no Confederations Cup. .. a complete blackout.”
Doubtless, the cash will be stumped up, and the tournament will be televised.
Another no-show at the tournament was the much-anticipated Rea Vaya, the first phase of the bus rapid transport system.
The plug was pulled due to an election promise of President Jacob Zuma. Undoubtedly, its on-time introduction during the cup would have unleashed taxi mayhem on the streets.
Whatever the merits of the so-called Bafana “mercenaries” and other bandwagon climbers, the world of soccer is actually dominated by stupendous amounts of money. Three days before the Confed kickoff, Real Madrid set a world record when it paid £80-million for Manchester United’s Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo — making Bafana’s pay claim look like peanuts.
And this signing came just days after the club had paid £58-million to acquire Kaka, now on display here for Brazil, from AC Milan.
Those two transfers approximate half of the R4-billion national sports budget of South Africa.
Interestingly, Real Madrid was described by soccer writer Simon Kuper as “a populist democracy”. Its recently returned president, Florentino Perez, was elected by the club’s 70000 members.
The club, rather like a country, has no shareholders, only members. As Kuper explained, “he bought Ronaldo to please them”.
As I was totting up the revenue figures of Real and the other nine richest soccer clubs, all European (I arrived at the total of € 2.5 -billion), I came across a report stating that the world’s leading hunger fighter, the United Nations World Food Programme, had less than € 1.1-billion in its budget, and was obliged to slash its programmes and, among other cuts, suspend food distribution to 600000 seriously hungry people in northern Uganda.
As the old banking advert used to say, “It makes you think, doesn’t it?”
*Published Sunday Times 21 June 2009