Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision NOT to travel to Zurich tomorrow for the 2018 World Cup ballot has seen England rise to favourites in the bookmakers' rankings as the battle to host the greatest football show on earth hots up.
Shock waves travelled around the football-speaking globe yesterday when Putin accused the English of a 'dirty tricks campaign'. And with the ever-popular former Manchester United and Real Madrid starDavid Beckham delivering a composed argument on behalf of his nation, some experts detected a sea-change in the bidding process.
Putin, often highlighted as a former KGB spy in the British tabloids, told his parliament he wouldn’t be travelling to Switzerland to support the £6bn bid – which involves the construction of a record ten stadia across the biggest nation on earth - because of “unfair competition”.
Both the Sunday Times and the BBC Panorama investigative team have left FIFA reeling with allegations against five of their 24 executive committee members who will vote on the bids for 2018 and 2022 today. Two have been suspended since the allegations were published.
Suggestions of FIFA corruption are rife and England hope, with Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron and former captain Beckham, their squeaky clean approach, already voted the “best technical bid”, will turn the vote around.
While few consider Russia a bastion of incorruptibility, Putin said: “I would like to note that recently we have watched with disappointment as an obvious campaign was being unleashed against members of the FIFA executive committee. They are being compromised and smeared in dirt.
“I consider it as part of unscrupulous bit of competition in preparations for the selection of the host-country for the World Cup.
“I would love to represent our entry in person. However, under these circumstances, I think it would be best not to go out of respect for the members of the FIFA executive committee, so that they could make their decision in peace and without any outside pressure.”
Putin’s surprise decision to stay away may well backfire on Russia’s extravagant bid. With questions over his nation’s organised crime levels, climate and transport infrastructure, England’s bid rocketed to the top of the betting leaderboard with Labrokes and other bookmakers despite the current big freeze in Britain.
Beckham, proving just as valuable here as he was in London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, produced a polished, convincing performance in front of the microphones, saying: “'I think that we can trust every one of these FIFA executive committee members. They are football people and they are going to want a World Cup in the best country that they think could host the biggest sporting event in the world.
“Everything has been positive so far. We have obviously listened to the feedback and the ideas we feel we need to be pushing in the next few days and we are working on it.”
England now claim they have six of the 23 votes, Spain and Portugal’s excellent bid has seven or eight, with Russia claiming the same number. The question is, who will get the two or three votes cast for rock-bottom Holland and Belgium, the outsiders, when they are eliminated in the first round of voting?
England’s cause may not be helped by today’s tabloid revelations in freezing England. The Daily Mail has revealed how the FIFA executive committee are housed in the £2,400 (R26,000)-a-night Baur Au Lac hotel in Zurich, where a bottle of wine can cost £8,000 (R90,000).
The 2022 bid, which will also be voted on tomorrow, is veering Australia’s way. Though Qatar has the money and influence, the Socceroos wheeled out actress Cate Blanchett, supermodel Elle McPherson, comedian Paul Hogan, cricketer Steve Waugh and a host of kangaroos yesterday in a bid to outshine the efforts of the USA, with Bill Clinton in attendance, troubled South Korea and rank outsiders Japan.
MacPherson, known as ‘The Body’, is being lined up as the Claudia Schiffer of the ballot. The German beauty certainly attracted votes when her nation won the bid for 2006.
Though MacPherson has never knowingly kicked a football, Aussie FA boss Ben Buckley said: “She’s a fantastic, iconic Australian who’s been very successful on the world stage. Football is the world game, so there’s no better way to express Australia’s personality than through a person like her.”
Though Russia and Qatar offer the cash and kudos FIFA president Sepp Blatter hankers after, England and Australia may be the sensible choices for fans and football. Time will tell.