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South Africa leadership ‘approved’ World Cup payment

The highest levels of South African government approved a $10-million payment that US investigators suspect was a bribe to get the 2010 World Cup, media reports said Friday.

Then president Thabo Mbeki and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma approved the payment which the authorities again insisted Friday was for a legitimate development project in the Caribbean.

The new revelations emerged as FIFA remained at the eye of a corruption storm after seven of its officials were arrested last week and its president Sepp Blatter resigned.

The South African payment in 2008 was made through FIFA and went to an account controlled by Jack Warner, a disgraced former FIFA vice president from the Caribbean wanted by US authorities for accepting bribes.

US investigators suspect the South African payment was a bribe to get three FIFA executive votes for its World Cup bid. South African authorities say the $10-million payment was an honest donation to support football among the “African diaspora” in the Caribbean.

“President Mbeki spoke with the leadership of the 2010 World Cup local organising committee,” Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula told the Beeld newspaper when asked who decided to pay the money.

“(It was) the government’s idea,” he said.

The Mail and Guardian newspaper published a 2007 letter from World Cup bid chief Danny Jordaan to FIFA about South Africa’s donation to the “Diaspora legacy support programme”.

Jordaan wrote that foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, now chairman of the African Union Commission, had advised the money should be paid from the government to the organising committee.

FIFA would then deduct the sum from the organising committee’s budget and pay it straight to the “diaspora programme”, Jordaan added.

The “diaspora programme” was virtually unknown in South Africa, but in a 2011 interview Mbeki said some funds had been given to develop soccer in the Caribbean.

Mbalula said Friday that the latest disclosures did nothing to challenge South Africa’s position that the payment was genuine.

“The bribery allegations are being used to pursue political agendas,” he said in a statement.

“There is nothing new, nothing amiss, nothing conspicuous.”

– Fighting extradition –

Warner, from Trinidad and Tobago, is one of 14 football and sports marketing company officials and executives facing charges in the United States over more than $150 million of bribes paid over two decades.

At the time of the South African payment he was head of the Concacaf confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean. Its current head Jeffrey Webb was among the seven FIFA officials detained in Zurich last week.

The seven are now fighting extradition to the United States. Authorities in several countries, including South Africa and Australia and Venezuela have since launched their own investigations.

Evidence given by ailing whistleblower Chuck Blazer to US investigators told of attempts to buy the 1998 and 2010 World Cups hosted by France and South Africa respectively.

Now battling cancer in hospital, Blazer said in testimony released by prosecutors that FIFA executives conspired to accept bribes during bidding for the tournaments.

The corruption scandals played a direct role in the shock resignation of Blatter on Tuesday. The 79-year-old official will stand down after an election for a new leader, not expected before December.

Blatter, once considered the most powerful man in sport, will not attend an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne next week.

Other areas of FIFA’s finances are now coming under the spotlight — particularly after it was revealed that the world body paid five million dollars to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) after France’s Thierry Henry’s blatant handball stopped Ireland qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

FAI chief executive John Delaney announced the payment in exchange for ending a court case against FIFA on Thursday.

Delaney said that Blatter’s behaviour at a football conference in Johannesburg 11 days after the France-Ireland match had hardened his determination to seek compensation.

“The way Blatter behaved, if you remember on stage, having a snigger and having a laugh at us…” he said.

“That day when I went in (to discuss the agreement), and I told him how I felt about him, there were some expletives used,” Delaney said.