Operation Dribble

R.W. Johnson · South Africa's Soccer Bosses

Just over a week ago the South African Football Association (Safa) –which is shortly to host the World Cup – sacked its chief executive, Raymond Hack, replacing him with the unknown and untried Leslie Sedibe. Sedibe happily announced that 'I can promise you parties, parties, parties all the way.' This week it emerges that Safa is having major cash-flow problems, owes a lot of money to the bank and a whole lot more to suppliers. Safa has to subsidise its 52 regions inside the country to help them pay their administrative costs. Many of these regions are on the point of closure, unable to pay wages, rent or phone bills. Safa itself is said to be 'paralysed'.

Safa is the battleground for South Africa's famous soccer bosses, rich men who like cutting a dash and are rough: accusations of attempted or actual murder are not uncommonly flung at them and they are willing to use financial or actual muscle to solve most problems. The authorities are visibly afraid of them. When Irvin Khoza, one of the greatest of all the bosses – 'the Iron Duke', as he is known – was found not to have paid his taxes for some time the tax authorities merely called him in for 'consultations' and reached a quiet arrangement with him. There was no thought of court action. Similarly, a few years ago the police arrested dozens of referees in 'Operation Dribble', having discovered that they had been bribed to fix most of South Africa's Professional Soccer League (PSL) soccer matches. The police were very pleased at having caught the refs red-handed but then it dawned that they could not be sentenced without the naming in open court of the soccer bosses who had bribed them. This was obviously unthinkable so the refs were all released and continue to manage domestic games in time-honoured fashion.

The coup at Safa was all about bosses. The World Cup will be run by the Local Organising Committee and Irvin Khoza, the chairman of the PSL, is also chairman of the LOC. He also owns and chairs Orlando Pirates, one of the country's top clubs, and is Safa's vice-president. Normally he would get his way on anything but Danny Jordaan, who recently gave up the Safa presidency but remains its dominant figure, is involved in an all-out struggle with Khoza. And Jordaan, who used to be an ANC MP, has the backing both of the Football Transformation Forum and of Fifa's Sepp Blatter. In World Cup year such good political connections count double and Hack, a lonely white, had the common sense to back Khoza (an African) which is why Hack got sacked by the Jordaan forces (Jordaan being a Coloured). The prize at stake here is a seat on Fifa's 24-man executive committee, which means a great deal of money and power. Khoza had assumed it was his virtually for the asking but Jordaan clearly has other ideas.

The money problems are largely due to the fact that South Africa's fans won't pay much to watch rigged games so Safa depends on sponsors who are in a continual state of cardiac arrest over Safa's antics. Things will doubtless get papered over for now.

However, when, in October 2009, Safa brought back Carlos Parreira as coach of the national team after his predecessor had lost eight of the last nine games, it simultaneously brought in Jomo Sono as its technical director. Somo is another famous soccer boss – he even named his club, Jomo Cosmos, after himself – and twice before on the eve of major tournaments he has pushed out the sitting coach and taken over the managership himself. There is no doubt that Jomo would dearly love to lead Bafana Bafana out to start the World Cup and bathe in publicity as the hosts' manager, so no one is ruling out a last-minute coup at team level either. But there's the catch. Jomo's management record is pretty good – and he used to play alongside Pelé himself – but no one thinks Bafana can get through he first round. Unless, of course, we can rediscover some of the ingenuity revealed by Operation Dribble.


  • 28 January 2010 at 8:54am
    Imperialist says:
    More spectacular insights from the Spectator’s football blog.

    I wonder how much Jordaan paid this guy:

    (Having RW write about Africa for the LRB is like having Ariel Sharon as the New Left Review’s Gaza correspondent.)

  • 28 January 2010 at 2:37pm
    Martin says:
    What was Hack doing the past six years? If SAFA is in such a shambles, surely as CEO he has to take the rap - or at least some of it. Or are you saying that all of SAFA's financial woes have sprung up in the first week of Sedibe the Pary King's tenure?

    On another note, this seems to be a speciality of South African sports bodies. Sack the CEO of soccer on the eve of the World Cup; force the cricket coach to resign and then sack the entire selection committee overnight a week before a tour of India begins. And frequently sack successful rugby coaches.

    • 28 January 2010 at 2:48pm
      Martin says: @ Martin
      that should read 'Party King'.

  • 29 January 2010 at 9:58pm
    Martin says:
    Perhaps, given his advocacy of corporal punishment, Mr Johnson would like to spank these naughty soccer supremos:

    • 30 January 2010 at 10:14am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Martin
      I think that's a different Mr Johnson.

    • 31 January 2010 at 2:35pm
      Martin says: @ Phil Edwards
      I think you'll find that it is not.

    • 31 January 2010 at 3:16pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Martin
      OK, now I'm intrigued (and Google is coming up empty). What did you have in mind?

    • 31 January 2010 at 6:24pm
      Martin says: @ Phil Edwards
      Oh, sorry, Phil. I now see you put a link in there. Interesting article. R.W. Johnson writes regularly for Business Day ( in South Africa. One of his columns is 'Face Off' in which he debates with Khehla Shubane various current affairs. In a recent debate on education, he lamented, albeit obliquely, the passing of corporal punishment: 'it was the ANC that ended corporal punishment in schools without replacing it with any other means for maintaining discipline.'

  • 2 February 2010 at 8:27pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    That's scarcely unqualified advocacy of corporal punishment, though - which would in any case be a very strange position for R. W. Johnson to adopt, given what he's written about his own history. I think the worst charge I can manage is inconsistency, fuelled in this case by animus against the ANC.

    • 2 February 2010 at 9:05pm
      Martin says: @ Phil Edwards
      I retract 'advocacy'. R.W. Johnson's experience of flogging at school sounds horrendous and has probably led him to oppose the practice. But, equally, I am always amazed at how many victims of such beatings and of barbaric school initiation rites sanction similar behaviour when their sons or grandsons are the victims, accompanying their support with such mutterings as 'moral fibre', 'the youth today','will make a man of him' and 'good discipline - essential'.

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