Can Sexwale unite Africa and provide the continent’s first boss of world football?
> Robson Sharuko
Harare- AFRICAN football’s unity, shattered twice in four years at the turn of the millennium as a number of nations revolted against CAF strongman Issa Hayatou, could be tested again in February when a candidate from the continent runs for the FIFA presidency.
Multi-millionaire South African businessman and anti-apartheid campaigner, Tokyo Sexwale, who emerged from the notorious Robben Island prison to build a fortune in mining that has earned him an estimated US$200 million, is in the running to become the next FIFA president.
The businessman, who announced he was running for the FIFA presidency at a news conference in Johannesburg at the weekend, is being backed by the South African Football Association and expects to get the majority of African votes on his side.
“I will not disappoint you,” a confident Sexwale, who has worked in FIFA structures before as the organisation’s anti-racism adviser, told South African reporters last Saturday.
“The brand of FIFA is severely damaged today following various scandals and other allegations that we are hearing about.
“It needs to be restored.”
And his country’s football bosses are backing the candidature of a man whose other significant role in football was leading a FIFA delegation to Palestine and Israel to discuss issues affecting football development in that volatile part of the world.
“He’s been a chair of many boards and I think he has the credentials.
He’s also been on FIFA committees for many years,” SAFA president, Danny Jordaan, said.
“If you look at one of the things required, especially leadership, I think there’s no question that his leadership capabilities has been trusted over many years.”
But can Africa deliver a FIFA president?
Or, more importantly, can the continent stand as one and ensure that they support one of their own – which will give Sexwale a big advantage – when FIFA leaders converge in Zurich in September to elect the organisation’s new leader?
History doesn’t appear to favour such a united African pact.
And, Hayatou, who was parachuted into the seat of acting FIFA president, in the wake of the shame that followed the suspension of Sepp Blatter amid a raging corruption storm, until a substantive leader of the world football governing body is elected, knows that getting Africa to vote en-bloc is virtually impossible.
Seventeen years ago, Hayatou entered into a pact with the then UEFA president, Lennart Johannson, promising to deliver all the African votes for the Swede in his battle for the FIFA presidency against the wily Blatter in Paris, France.
As part of the pact, Johannson would step down after just four years in charge of world football and pass the baton, for the FIFA presidency, to Hayatou.
However, Southern and East African countries, who had always felt marginalized by Hayatou and his powerful West and Northern African alliance, rebelled against the CAF president with most of them voting for Blatter. When the Swiss strongman took a 111-80 first round vote, it became clear to Johannson that he hadn’t received the backing of all the African countries, as promised by Hayatou, and the Swede conceded defeat and withdrew from the race.
Blatter’s 17-year reign as FIFA president had begun.
The repercussions for the rebels, from embarrassed CAF officials, were swift and Zimbabwe, due to host the 2000 African Cup of Nations finals, was stripped of its rights on the flimsy excuse that the country was behind schedule in preparing for the tournament.
South Africa’s bid to host the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals also did not receive the full backing of the CAF leadership who even encouraged Morocco, the first nation that declared it was ready to replace Zimbabwe in hosting the 2000 Nations Cup finals, to fight the Rainbow Nation for the global football showcase.
In 2002, Hayatou plunged into the race for the FIFA presidency, and – just like Johannson four years earlier – he was soundly beaten 139-56 in the first round by Blatter as Africa, once again, didn’t vote en-bloc to support a candidate from the continent.
Can Sexwale succeed where Hayatou failed, not once but twice, in spectacular fashion?
His backers, who include the SAFA leadership, believe that he has the credentials to stage a credible campaign for the FIFA presidency and those who are opposed to racism in the game, will certainly support his candidature, given the battles he has fought on that front in the game.
“If we don’t stand up, if we allow racism to overpower sport, we will be doomed to existence in a hostile world,” he told FIFA Weekly last year.
“Racism-discrimination is a society problem. It’s like a monster that is trying now to infiltrate sporting fields. If we don’t stand up, if we allow racism to overpower sport, we will be doomed to existence in a hostile world.
“We all took the decision to fight racism – not just in sport, in the whole world. Focusing on only football gives the impression that racism is a FIFA problem. This is erroneous.
“To date there is no global, centralized and coordinated leadership in this battle in all sport. That is what’s missing and this is what Global Watch will provide.
“Emptying a stadium is not necessarily the most appropriate punishment,” he argued. “Should thousands suffer because of one fool who threw a banana? Relegation is tricky too. Do we really want to relegate a team because of a few racist fans?”
There are some who believe that the time has come for Africa to provide a FIFA president, just five years after the continent hosted its first World Cup in South Africa.
Whether Sexwale is the man who could provide that, in a game that is badly tainted and coming from a continent that is usually divided, when it comes to football, remains to be seen?