Monday, August 23, 2010
Clegg looks to put England in prime position
England's 2018 World Cup bid enters its most critical phase on Monday when FIFA's technical team arrives for a four-day inspection of the country's facilities.
A six-man FIFA inspection team will be greeted by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and will also meet England manager Fabio Capello on the first day of a visit that marks the most pivotal moment to date in the campaign to host the tournament for the first time since 1966.
Clegg will be joined by Secretary for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt and Sports Minister Hugh Robertson at Downing Street along with an England 2018 delegation led by bid chairman Geoff Thompson. Clegg's welcome will be followed by statements from the inspection team's leader, Harold Mayne-Nicholls, on behalf of FIFA, and a further speech from England 2018 chief executive Andy Anson.
The FIFA team will then move on to Wembley later in the day with visits to Sunderland, Manchester and Newcastle to follow during a hectic timetable.
"We are looking forward to bringing our proposals to life by providing the inspectors with opportunities to experience some of our facilities first-hand and to take part in a range of presentations involving football people, from greats of the game through to community coaches and volunteers," Anson said.
England, third on the FIFA team's European itinerary, are up against Russia and the joint bids of Spain-Portugal and Netherlands-Belgium. Prime Minister David Cameron, on holiday in Cornwall, will be conspicuous by his absence but has already sent his apologies to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Quite what effect that will have remains to be seen, especially since Vladimir Putin, Cameron's opposite number in Russia, was praised by the inspection team for cutting short his own vacation when the country hosted the FIFA bigwigs last week.
English bid insiders have been quick to play down Cameron's absence and focus on the positive. Although Russia are regarded as England's main rivals, they have to spend more and build more than any of the other contenders.
"We believe our bid book reflects a strong proposal to FIFA from a country that can deliver on facilities, commercial opportunities and general infrastructure, for the overall benefit of the tournament, its players and officials and the fans," Anson said. "England's bid is based around stadiums and facilities that are already in place and already being used on a regular basis and so there is minimal construction and planning required."
If this week's FIFA trip goes badly, it could ruin any chance of the tournament coming to England for at least another 20 years. Media access to the delegates is strictly forbidden, with officials keen to ensure there are no public relations gaffes or any repetition of the kind of lurid newspaper headlines that brought down former FA and bid chairman Lord Triesman earlier this year.
Interestingly, the FIFA team includes Danny Jordaan, the face of this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Jordaan was in direct opposition to England when both lost out to Germany for the 2006 tournament but is now a strong ally, even hiring former FA executive director and communications director David Davies as a media consultant in South Africa.
Once the inspection visits are complete, the nine bid teams for both 2018 and 2022 will have until December 2, when the vote for both tournaments is taken simultaneously in Zurich, to carry on lobbying.
English bid officials are growing in confidence that they can ultimately gain the required 13 votes among the 24 FIFA members. To do that, they need the support not only of a majority of FIFA's European bloc but crucial backing from other continents. Significantly, having already played a friendly in Egypt, England are due to play another in Thailand next summer, a goodwill tactic it is hoped will result in securing FIFA's four Asian votes six months earlier.