Ray Hartley, The Big Fix: How South Africa Stole the 2010 World Cup (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2016)

THE RUN-UP to the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa lasted five years. It was a remarkably febrile time when extraordinary claims were made for sport, football in particular. The few people who publicly expressed scepticism were treated at best as misfits; or commonly, and even worse, as traitors. The World Cup, according to received opinion endlessly repeated by government and the media, would change South Africa forever. By mid-2010 cars sported rear view mirror socks in patriotic colours, national flags were virtually compulsory on workplace desks, and the din of vuvuzelas was deafening.

Before the event, critical commentators expressed serious doubts about the governance of FIFA; pointing to the grandiose infrastructure required of South Africa at the expense of more pressing concerns (such as housing), the potential for corruption, the sovereignty blithely ceded to FIFA, and the grossly inflated claims made about legacy and long-term benefits. To its credit, South Africa’s bid had originally been launched in relatively modest terms subject to strict fiscal discipline and included upgrades to existing stadiums or even the possibility of appropriate new facilities in under-provided communities like Athlone. Instead, FIFA’s hubris and local political ambitions produced a number of white elephant stadiums that are now a drain on local budgets. South Africa’s construction companies colluded to fix the market, literally carved up the work on offer, and were eventually penalised by the Competition Commission.

The stadium at Mbombela (Nelspruit), as Ray Hartley relates, featured not just corruption but murder of critics such as municipal speaker Jimmy Mohlala and the attempted forced removal of the poverty-stricken community of Matsafeni. Its lawyer described ‘the greatest one-sided land deal in recorded history.’ (p. 117). The murder case remains predictably unsolved. South Africa’s government deferred to FIFA over key areas such as taxation, copyright and trade practices for more than four years before and after the World Cup under the Special Measures Act of 2006. Apartheid-era behaviour alternated with colonial kowtow.

The value and significance of this book is that it not only vindicates the concerns of pre-event sceptics, but also adds significantly to their weight. Much of this stems from information revealed after vigorous investigation by the Swiss and American authorities with their new sensitivity to money laundering that has shown FIFA to be a thoroughly corrupt, amoral and unaccountable body allowed for far too long to behave with the authority of a legitimate international agency. One of the lighter aspects of this saga is that FIFA and its leading officials were ultimately brought down by the American football administrator Chuck ‘Ten Percent’ Blazer who acted as a wired informant in line with his plea bargain. Hartley writes about the ‘taxonomy of graft’ (p. 167) and the vast networks of corruption spawned by FIFA and associated bodies.

The source of this book’s sub-title lies in the revelation that South Africa paid a bribe, with FIFA’s active assistance, to the crooked Trinidadian Jack Warner to secure votes from North American and Caribbean delegates ostensibly backing Morocco. This was covered up with cynical retrospective justification through a contrived, unpublicised diaspora legacy project. And there is a possibility that significant local political figures knew full well what was happening, which may explain Danny Jordaan’s sudden loss of interest in visiting his FIFA friends in Switzerland. But there is nothing exceptional about this: corruption in the selection of World Cup venues has been routine for years. The real scandal lies in the refusal of the media, football authorities and public opinion even to acknowledge this until recently. Hartley’s big fix was an established international practice long exposed by diligent and dogged, but isolated and persecuted, journalists like Andrew Jennings.

Then there is the extraordinary tale of the refereeing of South Africa’s warm-up matches preceding the tournament. Hartley provides intriguing detail of the deal between the South African Football Association and a Singapore-based scam called Football4U that fixed results through crooked referees for betting syndicates. The story of a man calling himself Mohammad appearing out of nowhere and conning a national sports association is at one level farcical. At another it is indicative of the degree of corruption embedded in South Africa’s sports administration.

Predictably the South African edition of the World Cup was not only a delusive episode, but a swindle. Hartley clearly started as an enthusiast believing it had something to offer nation building. Yet having written this book he can conclude that it was the ‘grandest of illusions … as the layers of tinsel are stripped away … the somewhat less glamorous truth begins to show itself’ (p. 9). There has been little legacy, just as the critics originally forecast. And, Hartley sadly concludes, South Africans are ‘great illusionists … a greedy nation, a short-cut nation that takes what it can and … has lost its ethical compass.’ This is a damning and depressing verdict, but fully justified by the evidence presented in his book.

It takes us a step further towards an understanding of the insalubrious character of much international sport: thoroughly corrupt, increasingly populated by drug-taking cheats and perverted by betting syndicates. This is on top of legal practices such as the payment of obscenely large salaries. Few major sports are immune from one or several of these ills. Yet the media and popular opinion continue to venerate sport and hold sportspeople in awe. Hartley has done an excellent job in setting the record straight about South Africa’s encounter with the shady world represented by FIFA. Whether it will correct erroneous popular historical perceptions is in doubt. Popular opinion, incited by the media, is notoriously and distressingly immune to historical truth.