BBC BLOGS - Simon Austin
« Previous | Main | Next »

2010's unlikely star

Simon Austin | 12:01 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Zurich, 15 May 2004: The destination of the 2010 World Cup has been revealed and the icons of modern South Africa are celebrating.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, president Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela are enveloped by hugs and congratulations on stage at Fifa's headquarters.

In the middle of the throng is Gary Mabbutt who, for those not in the know, must look like a gatecrasher at the party.

The former Spurs defender had played an important role in helping Africa win its first World Cup though and now, with exactly a year to go to the start of the competition, is busier than ever.

(Left to right): Danny Jordaan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela celebrate being awarded the 2010 World CupTournament chief Danny Jordaan told me: "Gary has been working with us for the last eight years and has done a great job. I describe vision as seeing victory before it is achieved and Gary was one of the people who had the vision to see a World Cup in South Africa.

"We greatly value his continued involvement, working with foreign media and developing the team bases in South Africa."

So how did Mabbutt, who is synonymous with Spurs and the holder of 16 England caps, become so heavily involved with South Africa's World Cup?

"I suppose it all started with a pre-season tour to Swaziland in 1984 and a day trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa," the 47-year-old tells me.

"It was absolutely incredible, the true animals' kingdom and was unlike anywhere I'd been before.

"The world could have been at war and I would have known nothing about it."

When Mabbutt married his wife Kathy, a South African he had met in London, their wedding was held in the Kruger Park.

Towards the end of his career Mabbutt was asked to work on development programmes in the South African townships by the Football Association. He was delighted to put his summers to such good use.Gary Mabbutt with fellow 2010 ambassadors Gary Bailey, John Smit and Lucas Radebe

"I went to Soweto, Guguletu, Umlazi and Alexandra and it was an incredible experience," he remembers. "These are very deprived areas where people have such a hard life, but there was so much passion for life and for football there. The work was very rewarding."

It was on one of these trips that Mabbutt met Jordaan for the first time, and the pair hit it off immediately. "Danny is a Spurs fan, so we got off to a good start," he says.

"He is a lovely guy who has shown incredible determination to first win the World Cup and then to make sure it will be a success."

Jordaan first asked his friend to be an ambassador for South Africa's 2006 World Cup bid, but the defender said he couldn't because England were also in the running.

When South Africa lost the 2006 bid in controversial circumstances, they vowed to go for 2010 and Jordaan turned once again to the Englishman. This time Mabbutt "jumped at the chance" to get involved.

And he vividly remembers the day the country was awarded the competition.

"I was sat in the front row of the hall at Fifa's HQ with the rest of the bid team," he says. "When the result was announced we leapt up and ran onto the stage.

"The first person I came to was the Arch and we gave each other a big hug."

The Arch?

"Sorry, Archbishop Desmond Tutu," he laughs. "A few years earlier I'd asked him what I should call him and he just said 'call me the Arch'."

Mabbutt felt hugely privileged to spend time with Mandela during the two days in Zurich.

"He is one of my all-time icons and South Africa is the country it is thanks to him. He was totally conciliatory when he came out of prison and I have so much respect for him."

It was only when he returned to his hotel after the result had been announced that Mabbutt truly realised the magnitude of what had happened.

"There was a big screen on the wall of the hotel foyer and they were piping back pictures of the celebrations in South Africa," he remembers. "It was very, very moving. I had worked in the townships and realised what a difference the World Cup could make to the country and to the continent.

"The World Cup can change perceptions of the country and the continent," he continues.

"I have encountered a lot of 'Afro pessimism' as I've travelled around the world and this will be the opportunity to change all that. The World Cup will be the biggest free advert the country could hope for.

"There will be lots of other benefits - the regeneration of deprived areas, encouraging international businesses to return to the country and enticing foreign fans back for future holidays.

Mabbutt is convinced the country will be able to stage a successful World Cup.
"This will be an efficient World Cup, despite what preconceptions people may have," he says. "The stadiums are ahead of schedule, thousands of tickets have been sold and the infrastructure is in place.

"But it will also be a carnival. In fact it will be the most passionate festival of football the world has ever seen."

What about South Africa's crime problem, which has worried Fifa in the past? "It is a problem but it can get overstated," Mabbutt insists. "The organisers and the government have done everything possible to ensure the safety of the teams, officials and supporters."

He then impressively reels off a list of facts and figures to support his claim.

"They are training 40,000 new policeman just for the World Cup, there are new helicopters, radio-controlled unmanned vehicles and 60,000 CCTV cameras in the host cities.

"Remember there are about seven million visitors to the country every year and the vast majority have no problems at all.

"I'll also tell you a story which my wife likes to remind me of. When I first went to work in the townships I decided it would be best to leave my Rolex watch - a treasured possession - at home in England.

"The first day I got back, I proudly put it back on and went out for a drive. I stopped at lights in Shepherd's Bush, was mugged and the watch was taken."

Mabbutt is grateful that such a fulfilling project has filled the gap left when he retired from football. "A lot of players find it difficult to adjust to life after football, but I've been lucky to be involved with South Africa's World Cup."

I suspect his love affair with South Africa, and football in the country, will continue long after the World Cup has finished.


or register to comment.

More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.