Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous comment “football, bloody hell” made after Manchester United did the treble in 1999, could well apply to the World Cup bids. Had a script-writer presented this scenario, it would have been rejected out of hand.

The script has as a key player a man who scored the winning goal against England nearly 30 years ago, and has seen the English bid team effectively apologising for the UK media.

The key question is: can David Cameron do what Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær did for Manchester United in Barcelona and conjure up an England victory?

Claudio Sulser, the man who scored that goal against England, could not have imagined finding himself in this position today. Back on a balmy summer night in Basle in 1981, his winner in a 2-1 victory for Switzerland over England in a World Cup qualifying match led to an infamous riot by drunken English fans.

Now, as the lawyer who heads FIFA’s Ethics Committee, he could effectively decide who will win the 2018 and 2022 bids. This week in Zurich his committee is adjudicating on the case of the two executive members, Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarri, suspended following a Sunday Times’ investigation into alleged corruption in the World Cup bidding process. The committee will also be considering alleged vote trading between Spain-Portugal bidding for 2018 and Qatar seeking 2022.

FIFA has drawn a tight veil over the proceedings of the Sulser committee. Both the suspended members deny the allegations and are suing the Sunday Times. Temarri will also be presenting to the committee a robust counter-challenge, alleging that his interview was doctored by the newspaper. But, talking to various FIFA insiders, it is clear that the feeling is that the two suspended members could be disciplined. So, come the December 2 vote on the bids, it looks as though they will not be allowed to take part.

The indication that FIFA members are bracing themselves for tough sanctions has been further reinforced by President Sepp Blatter’s decision to call an emergency meeting of the Executive on Friday (November 19). It is clear that Blatter wants the Executive round him to approve any action that may be needed.

Insiders also say that it will be impossible to prove the vote trading allegations and it is here that the bid has acquired elements of a soap opera.

Take for instance the note that Angel Maria Villar Llona, leader of the joint Iberian bid, passed to Mohammed Bin Hammam of Qatar during last month’s executive meeting. Observe the seating plan. The Spaniard sits at the far end of the table. On one side is Chung Mong Joon from South Korea, and on the other side Belgium’s Michel D’Hooghe. Next to the Belgian is Bin Hammam and then Chuck Blazer of US. They all represent bidding countries either for the 2018 or 2022 World Cups.

Suddenly, at the end of the discussion on the vote trading allegations, Villar Llona uses D’Hooghe, who heads the rival Belgium-Netherlands bid for 2018, to pass a note to Bin Hammam. The note is in English and Spanish and says, “Congratulations, we have won!” D’Hooghe, who knows Spanish, reads the note. The Qatari Hamman, who doesn’t read Spanish, passes the note to the man on his right, Blazer, whose country, the United States, has a rival bid to that of Qatar for 2022. Blazer duly translates.

So what do we make of all this: good fun or a devious vote trading strategy?

Many insiders I have spoken to see this as typical Villar Llona. He has never been the most popular man in the Executive, his in your face style grates with many and this is just something he would do. However, it is seen as falling short of bid collusion.

Indeed, even before this note passing drama, Qatar’s stance was that talk of any collusion was no more than Villar Llona and Bin Hammam, as fellow executive members, discussing their respective bids. In a letter to FIFA, Qatar is understood to have asked where, under FIFA rules, bid teams are not allowed to talk to one another.

And, if this were not drama enough, enter the British press and the England team’s reaction to it. There can be little doubt that there is a growing “shoot the messenger” view in FIFA which sees the Sunday Times’ investigation as unethical rather than raising legitimate concerns. Their unease has been increased by a forthcoming Panorama investigation due three days before the vote. Panorama has raised questions about past issues that have haunted the organisation.

Not only it is understood that the programme has gone back to the collapse of ISL, FIFA’s former marketing partner, but it has also contacted Chuck Blazer about his role in the controversial deal which saw FIFA dump Mastercard as a sponsor in favour of Visa. The move led to a US judge making extremely critical comments about Blazer and other FIFA officials including Jerome Valcke, now FIFA general secretary. FIFA and Mastercard subsequently came to an out of court settlement.

It is the England bid team’s reaction to all of this that provides the ultimate twist. Long before the media investigations began, bid insiders made no secret that FIFA’s distrust of the British media could count against England’s bid. It is hard to see the bid’s activity since the revelations as anything other than in salvage mode. So bid chief executive Andy Anson and international president David Dein tried and failed to persuade Mark Thompson, BBC director general, not to run the Panorama programme so close to the vote. Dein and chief of staff Simon Greenberg also met Blatter in Zurich last week and following this the bid leaders wrote to Executive members distancing themselves from the British media.

But this is not considered enough to salvage the bid. More substantial reassurance is necessary and this will be provided by David Cameron when he joins the bid team in Zurich for the final presentations to the FIFA executive. There is little doubt that he will try to do what Tony Blair (pictured) did in Singapore in 2005 when London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Then some 37 International Olympic Committee (IOC) members were individually brought to his hotel suite. He was given briefing notes on each of them. Blair did not ask any of them to vote for London. Instead he emphasised how much the Government supported the bid and would welcome IOC members to the capital. There was a parallel charm offensive by Cheri Blair as well. We all know how well it worked out.

In Zurich, Cameron is planning to meet FIFA Executive members individually at the lakeside hotel where they take up residence. His mission will be to emphasise the readiness of England to host 2018, the country’s passion for the game and what a good partner for FIFA the British Government would be.

The Government has already indicated their willingness to fall in with all of FIFA’s requirements. Back in the summer, when a FIFA inspection team visited the country, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, standing in for Cameron, promised that, should England win 2018, laws would be introduced to enable speedy trials of any football-related offences committed during the World Cup. South Africa enacted similar legislation, considered vital by FIFA to protect its World Cup brand. Those present in Downing Street were surprised to hear Clegg, who has no great interest in the game, make this pledge. But it demonstrated how keen the Government is to get the World Cup back to this country.

Indeed, in his efforts to win for England, Cameron can go further than Blair. Blair was unable to address the session in Singapore as he had to come back to host the G8 summit. Cameron will be central to England’s presentation to the FIFA Executive members. This will see him going head to head with Vladmir Putin, leading the Russian bid. Cameron’s aides have reassured the bid that the Prime Minister is looking forward to this. As one government insider told me, “Cameron is a salesman and he will see himself as capable of selling Britain to anyone. We know we will be up against Putin but Cameron fancies himself as outselling him.”

There can be little doubt that England 2018 needs him. England are behind, not fatally but worryingly so.

In Barcelona Sheringham and Solskjær scored so late in injury time to turn the 1999 Champions League final on its head – 1-0 to Bayern Munich became 2-1 to United in the 93rd minute – that Lennart Johansson, then President of UEFA, nearly gave the Cup to Bayern. Now our Aston Villa supporting Prime Minister may have to out-perform them if England are to win.


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