The Sunday Times

England must win friends and influence people if their bid to host the 2018 World Cup is to overcome Russia and the Spain-Portugal joint bid

England’s World Cup bid team are this weekend desperately trying to secure at least six first-round votes of Fifa executives for the 2018 tournament. Should England not manage that on Thursday, when voting takes place in Zurich, they would still survive the first round. But their chances of beating their main rivals, Russia, or the joint bid of Spain-Portugal, will be terminally weakened.

To make sure of the crucial sixth vote, England’s attention has focused on the Japanese member, Junji Ogura. That is why Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for sport, accompanied Paul Elliott, the bid director, on the long trip to Kuala Lumpur to attend the 2010 Asian football awards. Normally this would not be on the agenda of a British cabinet minister but the presence of Hunt, a fluent Japanese speaker, was considered essential.

Ogura has long been an England target. As a sports administrator, he is one of the few who reads the bid books, a big plus for England, who have emphasised the technical merits of their bid. Hunt’s ability to lobby Ogura in his own language was considered vital.

Ogura’s vote is all the more critical because, as in England’s failed bid for the 2006 World Cup, tremendous efforts are being made to woo Jack Warner, the head of Concacaf. The confederation, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean, has three votes and, for the 2006 bid, England secured them.

Warner, though, had warned the FA that if England did not gather six votes in the first round he would desert them. When England managed only five, he felt justified in switching to South Africa. Thus England were eliminated in the second round with only two votes. The worry is that Warner will again impose a target that England will struggle to reach.

In the past year, Warner has been wooed by Gordon Brown and David Beckham but, this week, he will be subject to David Cameron’s charm.

So keen is the prime minister to secure 2018 that he will jet back and forth from Zurich, flying out on Tuesday and back on Wednesday for prime minister’s questions before returning to be part of England’s presentation on Thursday with Prince William and Beckham.

Cameron will meet the Trinidadian minister hours after a BBC Panorama special report on Fifa that is likely to focus on Warner’s controversial past. The programme has already provoked Warner’s wrath, with hints that it could affect England’s chances. Cameron may find that, compared with Ed Miliband across the dispatch box, Warner is a greater challenge.

To complicate matters, the three Concacaf members might not vote the same way. The England team are hopeful of backing from the New Yorker Chuck Blazer but may not gain the vote of the third Concacaf member, Rafael Salguero, who is now said to be veering towards Spain-Portugal.

England will not be the only country flooding Zurich with football glamour and political dignitaries. Belgium-Holland are seen as the weakest contender in the four-horse 2018 race but are taking to Zurich a team including Ruud Gullit, Johan Cruyff, Guus Hiddink and the prime ministers of both countries.

Image courtesy of The Sunday Times

Bid insiders concede that, while the high-profile football names will fill the back pages, victory or defeat is likely to be fashioned by the heavyweight politicians.

And, with Fifa deciding on both 2018 and 2022 at the same time, the alliances between bidding nations could determine England’s fate. This is where England face another problem.

England do not have a natural fit with any of the countries bidding for 2022. For all the denial from Spain-Portugal that there is no collusion with Qatar, which is bidding for 2022, recent lobbying has seen plenty of talk of an alliance. The Emir of Qatar, who may also be in Zurich, is emerging as a key player.

The Emir made no secret during his recent state visit to this country that he desperately wants the World Cup. He is also believed to have tried to persuade the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene and persuade Michel Platini, president of Uefa, to back Spain-Portugal for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.

Platini, who is grateful to Sarkozy for his help in securing Euro 2016 for France, defeating Turkey by one vote, is expected to vote for Belgium-Holland in the first round. Before the Emir’s intervention, England were hopeful of gaining Platini’s vote in the second round. Will he choose to disregard the pressures being applied by his president?

There is another developing alliance forming between Russia, which is bidding for 2018, and Australia, which wants to stage the 2022 World Cup. While there is no formal agreement between the two countries, their bid teams have long-standing personal links. Vladimir Putin will be in Zurich to argue the Russian case that, never having held a World Cup, it is Russia’s time, an argument that has resonance with both Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, and Franz Beckenbauer.

Beckenbauer’s close associate Fedor Radmann is advising Australia on its bid. In Zurich, the Australians, led by the governor general, Quentin Bryce, will make the argument that, not only is Australia a safe bet for a World Cup, but, by 2022 with the world economy focused away from Europe, it will make sense to take the competition there.

Publicly, England exude confidence but a more revealing insight came in midweek when David Dein, the globetrotting 2018 international president, held a video press conference from Asuncion in Paraguay. Dein, notoriously camera shy, spoke of Winston Churchill’s definition of an optimist: “Someone who makes an opportunity out of a difficulty.”

And while accepting “we’ve had certain difficulties”, he explained his decision to go public. “This is the moment that the whole of England should hold hands together. Not just football, the press need to get behind us, the fans need to get behind us.”

Dein’s words indicate how even the England bid leaders recognise the size of their challenge in Zurich.

Image courtesy of The Sunday Times


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