Franz Beckenbauer, rest in shame

South African memories of German corruption


Who taught leading South Africa sports officials and politicians world-class corruption; specifically, how to buy hosting rights to the FIFA Soccer World Cup?

One prime suspect is the great mid-fielder Franz Beckenbauer, who passed away on Sunday January 7 in Salzburg, Austria, not far from his native Munich. I saw him play sweeper for the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s when he and other legends like Pele, Chinaglia and Cruyff – seduced by Yankee money (and certainly not the quality of U.S. competitors) – came to Washington, DC, where I then lived, to periodically defeat the Diplomats. The local team soon went bankrupt, twice. But Beckenbauer was a joy to watch, often commanding the whole pitch.

His field of play then widened further, into a leadership role at FIFA, the Swiss-based Federation of International Football Associations that runs the quadrennial World Cup. Sepp Blatter became FIFA chief executive in 1998, only resigning (in disgrace) 17 years later. In mid-2000, as the host of the 2006 World Cup was being chosen, Beckenbauer’s impact on South Africa was profoundly corrosive, prompting then-President Thabo Mbeki to, first, bitterly invoke the term ‘global apartheid’ – and then, when the South African couldn’t beat the world-class cheaters, he along with FIFA Local Organising Committee leader Danny Jordaan joined them, four years later.

The German team’s bidding strategy included bribery of FIFA delegates, using a €6.7 million slush fund set up by Adidas’ chief executive. (Earlier, the same firm’s leading shareholder had bribed French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to get a large taxpayer bailout. Later, notwithstanding her 2016 conviction, she became leader of the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.)

Beckenbauer needed to act fast, because “By early 2000 South Africa seemed to be leading Germany in the scramble for the votes at FIFA’s ExCo,” especially after a round that eliminated Tony Blair’s British bid, according to FIFA’s most prominent critic, journalist Andrew Jennings:

“ One of England’s votes was cast by New Zealand’s Charlie Dempsey. He had been mandated by his regional confederation in Oceania to vote for England and when they dropped out, to back South Africa. Even if Germany picked up the other floating vote, the result would still be a draw, Blatter had to back the Africans. The result was now obvious. See you in Cape Town in 2006.”

German vote buying

But it was not to be, as Jennings recounts: “They voted for a final time: Germany 12 votes, South Africa 11 votes! See you in Munich in 2006. But that was only 23 votes. Somebody had not voted. Who was it? It was Charlie Dempsey. He had walked out between rounds. He was at Zurich airport, catching a plane home. Charlie dodged reporters as best he could but when cornered, babbled about ‘intolerable pressure’ on the eve of the vote.”

Dempsey was bribed $250,000 to abstain, admitted former German football federation president Theo Zwanziger – who along with Beckenbauer and two other German soccer officials, were prosecuted by Swiss authorities from 2016-21. Tellingly, both the criminal probe and an internal FIFA investigation into German corruption were aborted because they took too long, according to authorities, in part because Covid proved disruptive to prosecutors in October 2020.

Just weeks before the vote, Dempsey met Beckenbauer. The subsequent violation of Dempsey’s mandate to support South Africa was considered by New Zealand’s Sports Minister Trevor Mallard such a ‘national disgrace’ – “Mr. Dempsey has damaged the international reputation of our country” – that Prime Minister Helen Clark was compelled to quickly call Mbeki to apologise.

While Beckenbauer and the Germans celebrated, and British Commonwealth countries felt betrayed by Dempsey, according to Jennings, “Blatter had to comfort Africa. The South African Football Association was so angry that there was talk of taking the obviously crooked decision to arbitration. Blatter talked them out of it and promised that in future the World Cup would be rotated through the continents – and Africa would stage the 2010 tournament.”

How had Dempsey been persuaded, and how had other FIFA executive votes gone to Germany?

According to Spiegel magazine in 2015, “the German bidding committee created a slush fund in its effort to land the rights to host the 2006 World Cup. Senior officials, including football hero Franz Beckenbauer, are believed to have known about the fund. In what could turn out to be the greatest crisis in German football since the Bundesliga bribery scandal of the 1970s, Spiegel has learned that the decision to award the 2006 World Cup to Germany was likely bought in the form of bribes.”

The slush fund was, Spiegel insisted, “filled secretly by then-Adidas CEO Robert Louis-Dreyfus” and was “used to secure the four votes belonging to Asian representatives on the 24-person FIFA Executive Committee.” The source of the specific Dempsey bribe is still unknown.

Though he denied explicit bribery, Beckenbauer admitted there was a slush fund: “I, as the president of the organisation committee at the time, carry the responsibility for this mistake.”

South Africans learn to play, the FIFA-Beckenbauer way

Having being taught a sobering lesson about FIFA’s modus operandi, in 2004 Mbeki initiated a $10 million so-called ‘African Diaspora Legacy Programme,’ drawing upon what should have been a FIFA fund to build South African grassroots soccer. And no such programme existed to help African continental soccer because it was well known by then that South Africa’s competitor for the 2010 hosting, Morocco, had already bought too many delegates, who then voted against South Africa in that year’s FIFA vote for 2010 hosting rights.

The secret emerged in 2015. Although Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula then postured incoherently about the attention to his team’s graft, it was obvious that the ‘Diaspora’ fund was meant solely to influence the leader of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf), Jack Warner, and his U.S. ally Chuck Blazer. The latter received $750,000, but in 2011 began cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leading to 2015 prosecutions of FIFA leaders, including Warner.

What had happened, the Sunday Times reported in 2015, citing the words of a FIFA Botswana official who was surreptitiously taped, was that back in 2004, “Warner ‘ditched’ Morocco because the South Africans offered him a bigger bribe.” (The same source, a Botswanan leader within FIFA, claimed that Morocco actually won the vote but Blatter gave it to South Africa anyway.)

At the time, according to reporters from South Africa’s leading investigative journalist network, amaBhungane, “South Africa was acutely aware of the need to get the three votes Concacaf controlled on the Fifa executive and pulled out all the stops to lobby Warner. If there was a secret SA government commitment, as alleged in the US indictment, then it might account for why Jordaan is so angry at being left holding the $10-million baby.”

The profound dishonesty and abuse of public resources for which FIFA became so well known also left smeary reputational damage in its wake. And yet twenty years after South Africa’s bribery of Warner, the three key figures – Mbeki (an often unwelcome political meddler in his own party since his ouster from power in 2008), Jordaan (since 2013, head of the SA Football Association) and Mbalula (since 2021, operational head of the ruling party) – remain influential and extremely controversial, and are still in denial about the implications of spending the $10 million on Warner and Blazer.

Beckenbauer fell ill not long after Spiegel’s 2015 allegations, and then became a recluse, in part because of his son’s painful death but also due to the FIFA scandal. His passing has generated heartfelt, deserved thanks for his on-the-field soccer leadership, and sympathy to be sure – but not enough self-reflection by Germans about his off-field fraud – and about their own role in the world.

Not another genocide?

This was especially evident on January 12, when the Social-Democratic/Green/Liberal coalition government announced it would formally back Israel against South Africa’s genocide charge at the International Court of Justice, becoming the first country to formally join Tel Aviv in the historic case which aims to halt slaughter of more tens of thousands of Palestinians. South Africa’s allies include Brazil, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Bolivia, Colombia, Jordan and former German colony Namibia – the victim of a 1904-08 genocide. Such open promotion of a Nakba2.0 now occurs in the wake of Germany’s own 1933-45 Nazi extermination of six million Jews and, in South Africa’s next-door neighbour, the near-extermination of the Nam and Herero people.

At a Berlin protest I attended on January 13, several South African flags were waved alongside Palestine’s. One sign asked the obvious question, “Really Germany. Supporting another genocide? How original.”

Likewise, observed South African physician Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, “The state (Germany) that committed more than one genocide throughout its history is trying to undermine the efforts of a country (South Africa) that is a victim of colonialism and apartheid, to protect another genocide and an occupying nuclear power (Israel).”

Namibian president Hein Gage was furious: “Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia, whilst supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza.”

A culture of corporate greed and corruption

All this reminds how in pre-1994 Apartheid South Africa, prolific profits for West German companies – including military manufacturers Daimler-Benz and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, Deutsche Bank, CommerzBank, Hermes Kredit-Versicherungs and Siemens – were remitted to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, as the country’s core conservative political leadership – especially Helmut Kohl and Franz-Joseph Strauss – openly backed the white fascists into the 1980s. (The East German state was very different, as were progressives in German civil society.)

In the post-Apartheid era, the most decisive German ruling-class attack on South Africans – and the rest of the world – was when Angela Merkel led European opposition to an attempt at the World Trade Organisation to accept intellectual property waivers for Covid-19 vaccines. The campaign, led by Pretoria and backed by more than 100 countries, lasted from October 2020 to June 2022, but in mid-2021 in one showdown in the U.S. Merkel refused to budge, protecting corporate power in general but specifically, as the NGO Health Global Access Project complained in 2021, “she proudly and nationalistically praises Germany’s allegedly homegrown BioNTech and Curvax mRNA vaccines.”

And still today, in the spirit of apartheid profiteering and of Franz Beckenbauer’s role at FIFA, corporate Germany remains rife with corruption, which still regularly leaks into South Africa:

  • Last week, leading German software firm SAPS was successfully prosecuted – and paid $220 million in fines – for bribery of mainly African politicians and officials, including South Africans.
  • The worst-case incident of bribery in South Africa’s energy parastatal Eskom occurred via a ruling-party fundraising firm in 2007, and was coordinated by a German national (Klaus-Dieter Rennert) who still runs Hitachi Power Europe, the incompetent builder of the two largest coal-fired power stations in the world.
  • Auto makers VW, BMW and Mercedes cheated on greenhouse gas emissions during the 2000s, and when this was discovered in 2015 it crashed the platinum price – with South Africa controlling 85% of the metal, used in catalytic converters – leading to a sharp collapse of the mining sector.
  • South Africa’s biggest-ever case of corporate fraud, Steinhoff, reflected the firm’s German roots and founder’s inadequate oversight, as well as German corporate mismanagement during the 2010s.
  • A German facilitator of Israeli genocide in Gaza, military equipment supplier Rheinmettal, still partners with South African arms parastatal Denel, resulting in ongoing ethical controversies and Cape Town production catastrophes.

All these (and other) German firms have caused terrible messes in South Africa, contributing to the local Johannesburg-Durban-Cape Town business elite’s ranking as the world’s most prone to “economic crime and fraud” during the 2010s, according to PwC.

Along with Franz Beckenbauer’s slush-fund legacy and Berlin’s support for Israeli genocide, German elites continually remind the world why such a durable and rancid ruling-class culture deserves, from the rest of us, relentless Red Carding.