South Africa's sports minister has told reporters in Cape Town that his country did not pay a $10 million bribe to secure the 2010 World Cup. He said he would seek a meeting with FIFA's new president, Gianni Infantino.
"South Africa did not pay any bribe nor did it illegally obtain the right to host the World Cup," Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula told a Cape Town news conference on Thursday.
On Wednesday, world football's governing body FIFA had said it would seek financial damages in US courts from former members accused in US indictments of accepting $10 million (8.85 million euros at today's exchange) in bribes in return for supporting World Cup bids. Although FIFA's accusations were not leveled at South African authorities, the news understandably reverberated in the country that paid the quoted sum.
"We paid money to a legacy project in the African diaspora in the Caribbean," said Mbalula, who took office in November 2010, after the World Cup. "It was a resolution of the South African government, together with FIFA, to support the [African] diaspora, and that is why it is on our plate. It was our policy to support our African brothers around the world in projects based around the World Cup."
However, the minister acknowledged that nobody subsequently oversaw the Caribbean project, which was never launched.
"We were taken aback by those developments, but we put no measures in place to follow up because the key was going to a FIFA institution," he said, putting forward the case - essentially - that South Africa had acted in good faith but had been scammed by the FIFA functionaries involved.
FIFA's Infantino starts public clear-up
The alleged $10 million payment was the most conspicuous smoking gun ever since day one of the US probe into FIFA corruption, the raids on FIFA's May 2015 congress. On Wednesday, new FIFA President Gianni Infantino said the organization would seek compensation from Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer and others accused of engineering the South African payoff.
Jack Warner, now a politician in Trinidad, was formerly the head of Caribbean football; he has been banned from FIFA for life but denies any wrongdoing.
US soccer promoter Chuck Blazer, who seems to have become US investigators' key source in their FIFA probe following his 2011 encounter with federal agents, has pleaded guilty on multiple counts including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. However, in US court documents, Blazer claims that Warner pocketed most of the money, only paying him a small cut. He has also been expelled from FIFA permanently.
Sports Minister Mbalula said he would seek a meeting with Infantino to dicsuss the issue, saying FIFA's announcement had tarnished the legacy of "the most successful World Cup in FIFA's history" and inflicted "reputational damage of monumental proportions on this country."
"We did not bribe. We did everything according to the book. But if others were found to have bribed, then let them explain," Mbalula said, concluding that he hoped FIFA would retract its Wednesday statement.
FIFA had been careful on Wednesday to point out that its claims for restitution were based on US indictments, saying that these "do not allege that South Africa 'bought' the World Cup with bribes."
That statement concluded that the US documents - and by extension FIFA - "merely accuse certain individuals of criminal behavior."
msh/rd (AFP, Reuters, SID)