The unflappable Mr World Cup

2010-05-31 00:00

AS the man in charge of pulling off the first football World Cup on a continent that has been dogged by disappointment, Danny Jordaan must be feeling the heat.

But the seasoned politician in him rarely shows it.

As the last pieces of the tournament are slotted into place, the 58-year-old former liberation activist, who had a brief spell as a professional footballer, is a picture of calm.

“We’ve worked very hard,” he says simply.

Jordaan is the chief executive of the World Cup Fifa local organising committee — the man who makes sure everything gets done and takes the flak if it’s not.

As the clock ticks down towards kickoff on June 11, he surveys South Africa’s achievements so far with pride.

The 10 stadia being built or upgraded around the country for the tournament were all ready, or as good as, six months ahead of time. In Johannesburg, a new bus system has been in place since ­August 2009. A new airport has opened in Durban, hundreds of kilometres of road have been widened and the country’s security plan has been hailed as first-class by an expert from that most cautious of nations, Germany.

Since 2004, when South Africa won the right to host the 2010 World Cup after a failed stab at the 2006 edition, the former national football boss has been on a crusade to silence foreign and local sceptics.

It’s a fight he compares to the struggle to end apartheid, in which he played a part.

Born into a mixed-race family in the southern city of Port Elizabeth, Jordaan was exposed to prejudice at an early age.

His family was classified coloured by the apartheid government and forcibly removed from their home in the city centre to the outskirts of town, when the centre was declared a “whites-only” ­area.

“As a youngster growing up, you stand there, the government trucks come and put all your furniture on the truck and then the bulldozers go into the house and flatten your house.”

“That was a very sharp and very painful reminder of the kind of system we lived under,” he says.

A few years later, he joined the South African Students Organization headed by Steve Biko, also a Port Elizabeth native, and took part in numerous boycotts and demonstrations, which saw him briefly detained by police.

“It was a difficult and dangerous time,” he recalls. Biko was brutally tortured by police and left to die on the stone floor of a prison cell in 1977 at the age of 30.

It was around that time that the nonracial South African Council on Sport (Sacos) was formed.

Arguing that there could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society”, Jordaan and other Sacos leaders campaigned for and obtained the international isolation of South African rugby, football, athletics and other sports.

Hosting the World Cup is part of a strategy to deliver on the government’s promise to make South ­Africa a better place for all, by ­using events to channel money ­into infrastructure development.

Will it all come off?

The big unknown is crime. How safe can visitors be in a country with some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, some wonder?

It’s a question Jordaan is asked at almost every press conference, and which the former teacher usually answers patiently, by pointing to the country’s record in hosting major sporting events and statistics showing tourists are rarely targeted by criminals.

Poke him too hard, however, and he is apt to blow a fuse. “Come up with another question,” he ­ordered a Belgian journalist in 2009 when she raised the perennial security question as South Africa was celebrating a successful Confederations Cup.

“We’re all human,” he says with a grin. — Sapa-dpa.

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