From Finland to SA’s Fifa Cup

Meeting Nelson Mandela on Robben Island
during the 2003 Fifa inspection tour was
the highlight of Pertti Alaja’s trip to South
Africa.

“Playing in a Fifa World Cup is an
unparalleled experience for a footballer,”
says Pertti Alaja.

When former Finland international goalkeeper Pertti Alaja received a call last year on his mobile phone from a number starting with +27, he had a flutter of excitement.

Alaja knew it was the international dialling code for South Africa, and on the other side of the line a voice with an offer he knew instantly he couldn’t refuse.

“When the proposal came for me to join South Africa’s 2010 Fifa World Cup Organising Committee, it took me less than 10 seconds to say yes,” he says.

As an 18-year-old, Alaja  made his debut for Finland’s biggest and most successful club, HJK Helsinski, going on to be a colossus in the Finnish national team for over a decade between 1973 and 1983.

He is now tournament director for Fifa’s 2009 Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup, but even before his appointment he knew South Africa well.

In 2003 Alaja was part of the five-person Fifa inspection group that assessed candidate countries bidding for the right to host the 2010 World Cup. He was immediately drawn to the country, and his was a ringing endorsement of South Africa’s credentials as a prospective host country.

“I love this country. I know these people,” he says. “The decision of whether I would be interested in supporting South Africa in its efforts to host the Fifa World Cup was an easy one.”

It is not just his love of football that made his decision easy, it was also his passion for a country he first visited in 1996. This made him determined to help make the first Fifa World Cup on African soil a success.

“When I came in 2003 I was confident that the country would be able to host a very good Fifa Confederations Cup and Fifa World Cup,” Alaja says. “Now that I am here and actively working on the project, that belief hasn’t changed.”

As tournament director, Alaja’s job is to take the planning of the Fifa World Cup from head office to venue operations, as it’s in the host cities and the country’s 10 stadiums where the tournament will actually take place.

“It is about building a bridge between the two [head office and venue operations]” he says. “My job is to work with the venues to create an environment for Fifa to take over tournament operations. I have to make sure that the matches are played according to Fifa standards and will be safe, happy and joyful.”

An experienced administrator, Alaja has been a Fifa general coordinator at a number Fifa tournaments and was general-secretary of Finland’s Football Association.

He also managed the Nordic bid – by Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland – to  host Euro 2008, which was ultimately won by Switzerland and Austria. Before coming to South Africa, Alaja was national director of the SOS Children’s Villages Association of Finland.

Alaja has been impressed with the Organising Committee’s venue managers and the committee members themselves. “Progress is being made and I am confident in their ability to deliver,” he says.

A passionate man with football in his veins, Alaja played alongside legendary South African footballers like Vusi “Computer” Lamola in his day.

“My dad was a priest and in Finland religion and sport go hand in hand. My father played football and it was natural that my siblings and I would be intimately involved in the sport too.

“Playing for your country is the true fulfilment of your dreams,” says Alaja.

Alaja was never able to represent Finland at a Fifa World Cup, but he sees his new vocation, as part of a committed South Africa working hard to successfully deliver the Fifa World Cup, as a calling.

“Playing in a Fifa World Cup is an unparalleled experience for a footballer. It is a theatre of players and the whole world is watching – there is no better opportunity for your career.

“But this is also a unique opportunity to tell the world what South Africa is really about. Some may know Cape Town, but South Africa is really a world in one country. All the nine host cities are completely different. From the relaxed beachside city of Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, which few will know is one of the greenest cities in the world; this event has the potential to turn South Africa into a tourism mecca.

“As a country progress has already been made. The nation is already more confidence in itself, in its abilities,” Alaja says.