Monday, August 23, 2010
Seeing is believing
The storm clouds hovered above an empty Wembley stadium but nothing could dampen the spirits of England's 2018 World Cup officials when FIFA's technical inspectors began a four-day visit with a tour of the national stadium.
• Clegg in prime position
• Blatter warns England over bid
After watching a group of schoolgirls being put through their paces in a gentle coaching session, the six inspectors, who opted to go to Wembley by underground, took part in a light-hearted penalty shoot-out before attending a formal dinner attended by a raft of footballing icons.
Much has been made of the visit by FIFA's high-ranking delegation that includes South Africa's World Cup chief Danny Jordaan and moves on to Sunderland, Newcastle and Manchester later in the week.
Organisers know that the next four days are crucial, especially after the series of gaffes that have dogged the campaign, most recently the embarrassing resignation of former FA and bid chairman Lord Triesman over bribery allegations made in a private conversation.
A semblance of stability has since been restored and bid insiders have been quick to play down Prime Minister David Cameron's decision not to cut short his vacation to meet the FIFA team, even though his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, did exactly that when the group visited Moscow last week.
Officials make the point that the next four days are about showcasing England's footballing traditions and state-of-the-art facilities though a marvellous opportunity was surely lost when Manchester City's Premier League fixture with Liverpool was left off the inspectors' agenda in preference for the private London dinner.
While FIFA inspection visits no longer rank candidates in order of preference, leaving the delegates with a good impression is a vital part of the bidding process, with little over three months to go before the all-important vote.
British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg attempted to do just that when he launched the opening day of their FIFA inspection with a Downing Street reception, describing the English bid as "unbeatable".
Clegg could be accused of the kind of arrogance that scuppered England's 2006 bid but was determined to add a touch of passion to his welcoming address. "I believe this is an exceptionally strong, unbeatable bid. We in this Government believe in it, we hope that you will believe in it," he said.
England 2018 chief executive Andy Anson also made a speech of greeting where, perhaps mindful of Russia's arguments about bringing the World Cup to new frontiers, he spoke of how England hosting the 2018 tournament would benefit the world.
"Just like FIFA, we believe in the power of football to open up new territories," Anson said. "Our new territory extends beyond any national boundary and directly benefits every country - each of FIFA's 208 member associations.
"A tournament in England will deliver a global legacy that will produce greater football and social benefits for more people than ever before. We will show that a FIFA World Cup in England is not just about what it can do for England, but about what a FIFA World Cup in England can do for the rest of the world."
Russia was warned last week by Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean football federation president who is leading the inspection tours, that it would have to start work immediately on building up to 10 new stadiums from scratch, a fact Anson was quick to address.
"While you are here, you'll see existing facilities available now to stage a first-class FIFA World Cup," he said. "You'll be able to see them with your own eyes not just in your imagination."