Taxpayers millions spent to avoid empty stadia

By Alex Duval Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 22 June 2010 10:53

A financial scandal is unfolding around the World Cup in the wake of claims that millions of rands of South African taxpayers’ money has been spent on tickets to avoid half-empty stadia on TV.

The claim comes as furious visiting fans, told by FIFA that matches were sold out, are raising questions about the sight of blocks of empty seats at matches on television, including a total of up to 10,000 that remained unoccupied during the opening match between the hosts and Mexico.

The development adds yet more fuel to the fire of criticism aimed at FIFA’s internet-based ticket sales system – put in place to satisfy sponsor Visa – suggesting its shortcomings run deeper than previously thought.

The sharpest criticism so far has come from South African teachers’ and health workers’ union NEHAWU, which claims R10.9 million ($1.4m) has been spent on tickets by government departments in violation of the Public Finance Management Act. The union also discovered that R65,400 ($8,700) had been spent on 25 World Cup tickets (R2,580 per ticket) for a ”jaunt” for executives of the subscription-based Government Employees’ Medical Scheme.

NEHAWU spokesperson Sizwe Pamla called on top managers in government departments to reimburse the value of tickets they have received. ”Our townships are burning because of poor service delivery,” said Pamla, ”yet overpaid state bureaucrats are stealing taxpayers’ money to watch soccer.”

Many fans found the online ticket sales system overly complicated; African fans without access to the Internet or credit cards felt the system was unfair. Only 11,300 tickets – or 2% of the total – were sold to Africans outside South Africa. Take-up of corporate hospitality boxes was also low, as companies felt the pinch of the global financial crisis. The few tickets currently being made available on Fifa.com are thought to come from returned corporate hospitality packages.

It now appears there was pressure put on the South African authorities to fill stadia. FIFA’s policy of there being no free tickets – apart from 120,000 given to stadium construction workers – meant state entities, ranging from municipalities to parastatal companies, were encouraged to buy large blocks of tickets, either for their staff or to give away as competition prizes. These may be the blocks of empty seats now seen unoccupied during games.

In Johannesburg, the opposition Democratic Alliance ordered its counsellors to turn down free tickets bought by the city, or pay for them. The DA revealed in May that the city had spent R10m ($1.3m) on tickets.

FIFA insists that ticket sales for the 2010 World Cup are higher than for any previous finals except for USA ’94. But its spokesman Nicolas Maingot also admitted the ticket sales system had been problematic and would be reviewed ahead of Brazil’s hosting of the tournament.

“We need to be more flexible moving forward to 2014,” he said.

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