FIFA’s stamping boot: what Robbie Earle and the Bavaria Babes really revealed

The Bavaria Babes just before their descent into criminalityIt’s a funny old game, football. We’ve all had a good old laugh at Robbie Earle, the hapless ITV pundit who blundered into a honey-trap and lost his job. Imagine falling for the old ‘blonde woman in short orange dress’ trick. Naïve doesn’t begin to cover it.
Earle lost his job for his part in an ‘ambush marketing’ stunt, when a batch of tickets he had requested for the Holland v Denmark game found their way into the hands of 36 women who smuggled themselves into the stadium dressed as Danish fans, then stripped off to reveal identical orange mini-dresses.
We gave a wry chuckle when we learned that the whole thing was a marketing stunt dreamed up by Bavaria, a Dutch beer brand, to gatecrash FIFA’s exclusive rights deal with Budweiser (the official World Cup pisswater).
Those crazy, crazy Dutch. What will they think of next?
Then we learned that the ‘Bavaria Babes’, led by an enterprising young Dutch businesswoman called Barbara Castelein, had been thrown out of the stadium, questioned for four hours and threatened with six month jail sentences for ‘ambush marketing’. Castelein claimed many of the women, all but three of whom were South Africans, were in tears when they learned they faced a criminal record.
And we laughed again, and said: fancy FIFA thinking it could invent a new offence of ‘ambush marketing’ and threaten to have people thrown in prison for breaching it.
Well, here’s the punchline: it can. And it has.
Yesterday Castelein and another Dutch woman, Mirte Nieuwpoort, appeared in a courtroom in Johannesburg to answer charges under the Merchandise Marks Act and the Special Measures Regulations. Their passports were confiscated and they were released on bail pending a further court appearance on June 22. The bail of 10,000 rand (roughly 1000 euros) was paid by Bavaria.
The Dutch government has expressed anger at the treatment of its citizens. Maxime Verhagen, the departing Foreign Minister, said: ‘IF FIFA has a problem with the orange dresses, it can fight out in court with the company. The arrests are disproportionate.’ Disproportionate they certainly are, but the galling thing is that they are entirely legal, thanks to FIFA’s sponsorship of the South African legal system.
As part of the deal that saw the World Cup brought to Africa for the first time, all the municipalities involved in hosting games agreed to introduce a series of by-laws criminalizing a range of activities for the duration of the tournament. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the laws introduced by the City of Polokwane (which ironically has the slogan: ‘naturally progressive’). They state explicitly that ‘following the selection of the Polokwane Municipality [as a World Cup host city], it has assumed certain obligations with regard to the competition and in particular, has agreed to ensure that appropriate by-laws are passed to enable the efficient running of the competition.’
The by-laws specify a range of activities that are prohibited while FIFA are in town. They include sensible restrictions on street vending, location of billboards, harassment and noise pollution. But top of the list is the outlawing of FIFA’s number one bugbear: ‘No person may, in any place owned, leased, administered by or under the Control of the Municipality, engage in Ambush Marketing for the Term.’
The penalties specified for breaching these laws are a fine of up to 10,000 Rand or a six-month jail term. Let us be very clear: these are laws, passed at FIFA’s direction, that make it a crime punishable by imprisonment to interfere with FIFA’s commercial contracts.
It seems reasonable to assume this is not the ‘new South Africa’ that Nelson Mandela envisaged when he stepped off the boat from Robben Island.
That FIFA sees fit to usurp the legal processes of a democratic nation to protect its private commercial arrangements is nothing short of monstrous. Both the Netherlands and South Africa have had their constitutions subverted by murderous regimes within living memory, and fought bitter campaigns of resistance to win their freedoms back. In this context, the host nation’s willingness to prostitute its sovereignty in this way is dispiriting.
This might seem like a rather drastic over-reaction to what, after all, was a cheap and mildly exploitative publicity stunt dreamed up by a brewery. It’s not as if these women have been subjected to degrading treatment or suffered an appalling injustice: at worst they face a hefty fine, which will be picked up by Bavaria, and expulsion from South Africa. And it’s been a terrific coup for the company, which will be congratulating itself on the free publicity generated by its antics.
But the entertaining cover story should not be allowed to obscure the authoritarian tendencies of FIFA. England is currently bidding to stage the 2018 World Cup. Presumably FIFA will press on the government the need to introduce a similar slate of ‘FIFA laws’ in the host cities. Magistrates in London, Liverpool and Manchester will be asked to send people to prison for offending the sensibilities of Nike and Budweiser.
If England values itself as a democratic nation, it must unreservedly resist this process. If taking a stand against the commercialisation of criminal justice means losing the chance of hosting the World Cup, it is a price worth paying. The Conservative Party has repeatedly decried the perceived erosion of British sovereignty by Brussels. It will be interesting to see if they adopt the same stance against laws being handed down from FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich.
In the short term ‘dressgate’ has been a public relations disaster for FIFA. They’ve managed to combine the Chinese government’s censoriousness, the diplomatic nous of the Bush administration and the dress code of the Taliban, all while making a crowd of photogenic blonde women cry. But I suspect they won’t care, as long as they retain the capacity to violate the legal systems of democratic countries with impunity.
Still, funny about Robbie Earle, huh?

2 comments

  1. COMING SOON TO A CITY NEAR YOU …

    Hi Gordon – it’s not just FIFA, and it’s not just the World Cup. See the Scottish Government notes on the 2007 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Bill, which I think was passed the following year. Ambush marketing is specified in pars 5, 11 and 110. The maximum fine will be £20,000 for a summary conviction. That’s inflation for you.

    http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/bills/04-GlasgowCommGames/b4s3-introd-en.pdf

    • That doesn’t surprise me, Joe. And presumably there’s something similar in place for the London Olympics.

      Par 11 says: ‘The Host City Contract requires the Scottish Government to introduce legislation necessary to prohibit ambush marketing, eliminate street vending and control advertising space during the period of the Games, no later than 30 June 2010.’

      ‘We are, however, under an obligation to
      protect the official sponsors of the Games from ambush marketing.’

      So there you have it. The will of Parliament is subject to ‘contractual obligations’ with the corporate backers of the Games.

      Still, at least there’s no mention of sending people to prison for noising up the sponsors.

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