LONDON (AP) -From FIFA president Sepp Blatter to David Beckham, soccer’s big names will converge on South Africa next week to celebrate the draw for first World Cup on African turf. Cheating, match fixing and fan violence also have forced their way onto the agenda. Blatter’s personal crusade to bring soccer’s biggest event to Africa has led to excitement and optimism that a continent which already provides some of the sport’s best players now has been entrusted with staging its biggest tournament.

But the upbeat mood looks to be getting overshadowed by other issues. FIFA’s ailing attempt to maintain “fair play” in the world’s most popular sport could well be sidetracked by squabbles over Thierry Henry’s hand ball, which led to the goal that put France into next year’s World Cup and knocked out Ireland. The Irish demanded a replay, the French weren’t interested and FIFA turned Ireland down. But the issue appears set to drag on as FIFA struggles to find ways to stop similar skullduggery on the field.

Cheating on the field has become one of the recent scourges of soccer, and the blatant bit of hand control by one of the game’s biggest names has led to more loud calls for video technology to help World Cup referees police the game. Blatter, who wants to keep the game in officials’ hands, may have to give way this time. The fact that Blatter, who has remained silent about the Henry storm, has called an emergency meeting of the FIFA executive committee two days ahead of Friday’s draw in Cape Town suggests soccer’s governing body will take some action. Although it may not approve technology – allowing the match officials to see TV replays of key plays before making rulings – it may follow UEFA’s trial in using five referees on the field instead of three.

To do that at a World Cup would be considered a radical move in the context of the slow pace at which soccer tends to make changes. If it became official, it would also lead to a major upheaval in competitions around the globe. The furor has little relevance to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup. But its organizers already have enough to deal with, now that the championship is less than seven months away. Despite delay after delay, all 10 World Cup stadiums are on schedule to be ready for the June 11 start of the tournament. But there remain transportation problems and accommodation shortfalls, with 2010 World Cup organizing boss Danny Jordaan admitting those issues won’t be settled until after the draw is made and teams and fans know where they will be going.

“It is only after the draw that we will get to know the profile of the fans who will be at a particular city and only then can we fine-tune preparations,” he said. “After the draw, a lot of challenges will emerge.” While striving to present a positive image of South Africa, Jordaan also is trying and convince skeptical fans from around the world that his crime-ridden country is safe. Official government statistics of 50 murders a day don’t help his case. That’s on top of the security problems that hooligan fans from the likes of England, Germany, the Netherlands and eastern Europe might pose to a nation that never has had to deal with them before.

South African police have spent some $93 million on equipment, including new helicopters, pursuit vehicles and the latest crime-fighting and prevention technology. Much of that is to deal with potential attacks on the teams. “They will have a special focus,” senior superintendent Vish Naidoo said. “We will have teams of highly trained and highly skilled police to protect the teams. There will be personal protection for the teams, the players and the coaching staffs, as well, and every training center will have its own police command center.”

The investigations into a huge wave of match fixing and betting scams in central and eastern Europe also are on the agenda of FIFA’s executive committee. Up to 200 games are being investigated, which should serve as a warning that even the World Cup could be a target of betting cartels. All these are issues that Blatter, Jordaan and the hundreds of hardworking South African organizers didn’t expect to worry about when the plans were drawn up to stage next week’s events. They kick off with the Soccerex conference in Johannesburg, where those interested in the business end of soccer will mix with Blatter and other leading figures in the game.

The United States, England and other nations bidding to stage the World Cups in 2018 and ’22 are also in South Africa to further their cases, and that’s where Beckham comes in. The Los Angeles Galaxy star, who stands a good chance to play at his fourth World Cup next June, is one of the vice presidents backing England’s bid to stage the competition for the first time since 1966. With his high-profile image, Beckham will be one of the major personalities at next week’s events as South Africa tries to present a glossy image and show itself off as a worthy World Cup host. The country’s crime rate, logistical headaches and soccer’s own problems are likely to take away some of the shine.

PUBLICATION: Sports Ilustrated
DATED: 27th November 2009