File photo: Although the government owns the stadium, which was known as Soccer City during the World Cup, First National Bank purchased the naming rights from 2007 to 2014.

Johannesburg - With kick-off for the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) less than a month away, organisers are still unable to print tickets for the opening games owing to a squabble over the naming rights to the Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium.

Although the government owns the stadium, which was known as Soccer City during the World Cup, First National Bank purchased the naming rights from 2007 to 2014.

One of the requirements by the Confederations of African Football, the continental soccer body, was that the venues should be brand-free.

During the World Cup, the bank waived its naming rights owing to a similar requirement by Fifa.

According to Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, FNB wants a further two years added to the rights agreement to waive the rights. The department owns the stadium and has leased it to the City of Joburg for 99 years, and it in turn has a deal with FNB.

“The difficulty is with what should be the compensation in lieu of what rights (FNB) will lose for two months. The issue has always been there. People had an understanding that it would not be a problem because of the World Cup,” Nxesi told The Sunday Independent on Friday.

Nxesi said the request by FNB to extend their rights to 2016 was a sticking point because of the “financial implications”.

“The one problem with big companies is that when there are issues of the continent, they do not take them seriously… The national interest might be compromised and we might be regarded as unreliable hosts,” he said.

Nxesi said if it was possible to resolve the rights waiver issue ahead of the 2010 World Cup, but not the Afcon event, it “might be deepening the perception that we are serious about European issues and not continental issues”.

He said the high-level negotiation team, which included local organising committee chief executive Mvuzo Mbebe, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, First Rand Bank chief executive Sizwe Nxasana, Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau and Deputy Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, was expected to meet before Christmas to look “at all available options”.

However, the bank says it is willing to reach a compromise.

“FNB has never been unwilling to waive its naming and signage rights to FNB Stadium. To this effect, various proposals have been tabled to the state for its consideration,” said FNB chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels.

On the apparent request for a two-year rights extension, she said the bank “tabled various proposals to the state. The most recent written proposal has not been acknowledged nor responded to.”

Samuels was not aware of a meeting scheduled to take place before Christmas.

Mbebe said the committee was concerned about the deadlock, but that negotiations were being led by the government.

He said the rights debacle had, however, affected “marketing efforts”, because they had been unable to market the Johannesburg venue, but that the sale of tickets had not been affected.

“At this stage you are able to buy tickets. But we are not printing the actual tickets yet because they must have the name of the stadium,” he said.

Asked about the worst-case scenario, he said: “Any stadium has got a back-up plan that is always there in case of a natural disaster,” he said, adding that “the games will happen”.

This is not the first time there has been a fight over the stadium’s naming rights – the bank has been in and out of court with Stadium Management SA over the naming rights, and the high court and Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in the bank’s favour.

Stadium management chief executive Jacques Grobbelaar said yesterday that the company “has made peace with the fact that FNB has the rights” until 2014.

“Our position is that we are compelled by court order to refer to the stadium as FNB Stadium,” he said. - Sunday Independent