The Confederations Cup exposed huge concerns about safety and security ahead of next summer’s World Cup

By Keir Radnedge in Johannesburg
Finally, the chasm of misunderstanding over safety and security at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa has been resolved. When the South Africans talk about safety and security what they are referring narrowly and precisely to is whatever happens inside the “FIFA perimeter zone” around each and every stadium.

Whatever may happen out in the wider world of the Republic – on its highways (particularly late at night), on its trains, in its parks and in its streets – is something else entirely.

This became crystal clear from the words of Fikile Mbalula, who is South Africa’s Deputy Minister Responsible for Security.

A “major breach of security” is deemed to mean a major assault on any member of a team delegation. Anything and everything else is deemed an “unfortunate incident” or an “isolated incident”.

According to Mbalula, only a “major breach” will be allowed to count against a judgment scale on the overall success of the safety and security operation at the World Cup next summer.

It’s no secret that safety and security has always been the most contentious issue attending the South African World Cup, with the question of transport next in the queue. Yet they should be considered joint-top of the priority list.

The evidence of the media experience at July’s Confederations Cup – and the media represented the rest of the world since foreign fans were largely absent from the tournament – is that a visitor to South Africa is most vulnerable when confronting the challenge of moving around the country.

This is written with much regret as FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, have taken a courageous step in bringing a historic first African World Cup into life. Bear in mind that the Olympic movement, unlike football, has not yet dared even take its Games to South America, and an African staging is far beyond the horizon.

Responsibility of South Africa
As far as 2010 goes, FIFA can control the football and it can set the standards for the stadia, the ticketing, the pricing and the travel schedule. However, FIFA cannot keep anyone safe. This is the responsibility of South Africa, which means not only the police and security services but the people of the Rainbow Nation.

The truth is that, after the various flying visits which the FIFA family has made for various draws and conferences, suddenly it was time to step down out of the bubble and engage with the host nation.

However, first impressions were not always reassuring.

I have covered every World Cup since 1966, most of the European Championships and many other major sports events. At none of these have I encountered such a steady flow of criminal incidents involving colleagues and business associates as in South Africa in the two weeks of the 2009 Confederations Cup.

This is not hearsay. This is not prejudice. I wish it had not been so. But it does no one any favours to pretend otherwise.

South Africa is a fascinating country with wonderful, friendly, welcoming, vibrant people. But coming here to the World Cup – for fans, for media, for sports businessmen – must involve a newly enhanced level of awareness, care and precise logistical preparation. No one should rely on sorting out an issue “on the day”.

This is not Germany in 2006; it’s not Korea and Japan in 2002; and it’s not France in 1998 – which are the travel and logistical benchmarks by which thousands of travelling fans will judge South Africa next year.

This is a different country in a different continent and with different strengths and weaknesses.

And there is plenty of evidence for advising caution.

After the opening match the senior football writer for Reuters news agency was mugged for cash by late-night traffic police, while two separate incidents were reported to this correspondent by promotional partners at the event: one of a robbery at gunpoint, another of a potential kidnap.

A reporter from the Spanish sports paper Marca, sent with €1,000 to try to buy tickets for the Confederations Cup and follow the event as a fan, was attacked and robbed; a woman reporter had her bag snatched; the same ill-fated Reuters journalist and a colleague were threatened with demands to hand over money for “minding” their car in an official stadium car park.

Elsewhere, but within the same time window, the bar at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth was robbed by five armed men after the British Lions had played there; then four British tourists, arriving to catch the rugby tour, were ordered from their car at gunpoint, robbed and beaten in wealthy Sandton, outside Johannesburg.

Loss or theft?
On top of these incidents – unfortunate or isolated, take your pick – came the “loss” of money from the hotel rooms of members of both the Egypt and Brazil parties (including coach Dunga). The word “loss” was chosen by the organising chief executive, Danny Jordaan. The word preferred by spokesmen for the two teams was “theft”.

The Egypt incident dissolved quickly into chaos with team officials and police officers briefing against each other to the media. The Egyptians said five players had cash stolen from their rooms during the win over Italy, while unnamed police sources questioned the timing and whether the players had celebrated their victory in female company.

The truth will almost certainly never be known. Just as with the wider debate, it’s all smoke and mirrors and semantics.

Mbalula, reviewing safety and security at the competition insisted: “There has been no major security breach. Incidents will occur from time to time of different natures and will be treated on a case-by-case basis by the police.

“We guarantee 100 per cent security as a result of co-operation between the teams and the police. Where incidents are reported we will attend to them.

“We are not over-defensive but we are quite happy about how we have conducted ourselves in the execution of our mission to protect everybody in the teams.”

Note the precise reference to the teams. This is the crux of the debate.

Mbalula added: “An unfortunate incident to a particular team must be treated as such. Teams have to be protected. But they have to take their own security very seriously.

“In the [Egypt] incident there was no security risk in that the players were not threatened in terms of their lives. Incidents like this are unfortunate but do not constitute a major security breach.”

Mbalula also cautioned against exaggerated reporting, saying: “If you are involved in an incident like pickpocketing then to you it is a major issue and that this is the country capital of crime.

“What is the crime? Merely, that you’ve been pickpocketed. Yet these incidents are reported as if it is like coming to a war zone where you must be guarded. Where there have been incidents they have been isolated. This is not to deny them but these have not affected the running of the Confederations Cup.

“Overall, this Confederations Cup has been successful from the point of view of security. Thousands of people have been enjoying the games and enjoying the safaris. From the point of view of tourism everything has been absolutely magnificent.

“We are happy about our performance so far and we will be upping our gear to ensure it will be even better.”

Good news for the teams, then. Not so sure whether it reassured the man from Reuters.