/ 24 November 2007

Fifa chief savours Africa’s first World Cup

With South Africa set to stage the qualifying draw for the 2010 World Cup, Fifa president Sepp Blatter is claiming a personal victory. ”I am very happy to be here in Durban, South Africa — [in] my continent,” he said.

Blatter’s reference to Africa being his continent is nothing to do with his birthplace. He is 100% Swiss. But the Fifa leader claims credit for making sure Africa finally gets to host soccer’s biggest championship.

Blatter was launching the official poster of the 2010 World Cup, which appears to depict Barcelona’s Cameroon star Samuel Eto’o, his head and neck cleverly designed in the shape of the African continent, heading and looking up at a ball.

”This face expresses hope, and hope is looking towards the ball,” Blatter told reporters on Friday, two days before the draw. ”This [ball] is the globe, the world. Africa is presenting something to the world and I hope that the world will receive this message.”

Blatter believes soccer is an antidote to Africa’s long fight against disease, famine and poverty and centuries of slavery and racial discrimination.

”To give to this continent a face, a human face, the human face of football, and also to say that, on this continent, there is no one dominating colour,” he said. ”They are all different colours and all of them are united in the World Cup in Africa and united by this face.”

In terms of soccer, the 2010 World Cup is getting back what Africa has given over the past two decades, when Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal made their marks at soccer’s biggest championship by beating some of the main contenders.

Instead of the stars of African soccer going to other parts of the world to show off their skills every four years, the big names from Europe, South America, Central and North America and Asia will be on their way to Africa in three years’ time.

The qualifying rounds have already started in many parts of the world, notably South America, where Brazil and Argentina are already among the front-runners.

But Sunday’s draw involves the big contenders from Europe, which will have 13 of the 32 finalists, while the likes of the United States, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Australia will also know their routes to the World Cup.

The draw takes place before 3 000 invited guests at Durban’s International Conference Centre, as a continent that is often seen as the future of the game finally gets its first big Fifa event.

The biggest match-up of the South African soccer season — Kaizer Chiefs versus Orlando Pirates — has even been moved from Soweto to Durban to coincide with the draw.

Often a scene of crowd trouble in the past — including a stampede that killed 43 people in 2002 — the match goes ahead Saturday against a background of intense security. Large numbers of police are on duty around the airports, train stations and downtown Durban.

The organisers not only of the draw but also of the World Cup itself maintain that South Africa, even with high figures for murders and robberies, is a safer country than the rest of the world imagines. But they want nothing to go wrong when Fifa stages its big show, which will be televised in 170 countries and territories around the globe.

England could be a big loser. Their 3-2 loss at home to Croatia on Wednesday meant it failed to qualify for Euro 2008. England dropped a place in the Fifa world rankings to 12th — with nine European teams above — and likely will miss out on a top seeding spot at the World Cup draw.

The nine group winners will qualify automatically and England could wind up facing any of the seeded teams, expected to be Italy, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Portugal, The Netherlands, Croatia and Greece.

A final decision on the draw procedures will be made on Saturday. — Sapa-AP