Friday, August 27, 2010
England buoyed over bid progress
First things first. FIFA inspection visits can't, on their own, secure the World Cup. But they can certainly cause candidate countries to lose vital ground if things go wrong.
• Clegg in prime position
• Blatter warns England over bid
Hence the sense of quiet satisfaction among England's 2018 campaign team when, after months of meticulous planning, everything seemed to run like clockwork during the four-day tour of facilities conducted by FIFA's technical team, who flew out of the country on Thursday en-route for Spain and Portugal, with a long weekend in between.
The surprisingly strong endorsement made by Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean delegation leader, towards the England bid was music to the ears of Andy Anson and his team after so many political gaffes and unexpected setbacks that have dogged the campaign.
Mayne-Nicholls didn't have to say anything much apart from the usual platitudes during his ten-minute summing up speech. Instead he gave as forceful a backing to England's hopes as Anson and his cohorts could have hoped for.
"All the needs and objectives of our visit were met and we are positive that the World Cup in England in 2018 or 2022 would be a great experience with a long-lasting legacy for the country and its people as well as for football worldwide," said Mayne-Nicholls.
There was plenty more of the same and while it is notoriously hard to read too much into formal remarks of this nature - no media contact was permitted with the FIFA team - his statement will certainly have been noted by England's three European rivals.
And by the United States who are technically still in the running but are waiting for the moment to pull out of 2018 and concentrate on 2022 - once they have found the best European partner with whom to trade votes.
Mayne-Nicholls made a point of playing down the absence of Prime Minister David Cameron who opted to stay on holiday in Cornwall with his new-born baby rather than meet the delegates in person.
"FIFA is a family too and we fully understand why he could not be with us - the Prime Minister took the right decision," he said. "Family is the most important thing in life, of course more important than football and that is a lesson for everyone."
When the FIFA team first arrived, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's assertion that England had an "unbeatable" bid was seen in some quarters as verging on the kind of arrogance that scuppered England's bid for 2006.
But again, Mayne-Nicholls' closing statement appeared to back up Clegg's optimism. "Deputy PM Nick Clegg emphasised a few times that the government, despite any future change, would be truly committed to organise the FIFA World Cup and would make sure that it would be met.
"As he put it in his own words, 'football is part of the glue that keeps our country together.' This kind of full commitment and passion we have seen in all the cities we have visited. They have all made very clear to us what the World Cup would mean to our cities and they all make clear with their clubs and the bidding committee."
The inspection team, which now moves on to the joint bid of Spain and Portugal, will distribute its technical report into all candidates to FIFA's 24 voting members by the end of October. Although World Cup contenders are no longer graded in terms of quality (England's facilities were ranked third in 2006), Anson's team were anxious to avoid any errors of judgement.
"They got the message that football is in our DNA," said Anson who flies to Monaco on Friday to attend the European Super Cup. "The visit was a significant milestone along the path but it's only one milestone."
With the vote on Dec 2, he knows the next three months of lobbying will be even more important. Russia are playing the new frontier and legacy cards to good effect while Spain-Portugal lurks dangerously in the wings with FIFA's three South American votes virtually in the bag.
Many FIFA members, however, have still not made up their minds which way to vote on D-day in Zurich. Despite the global popularity of English football, England's campaign has no room for complacency. "We've got 98 days to convince the 24 FIFA members," Anson said. "This is where the campaign really starts hotting up."