England's 2018 bid in the spotlight
As David Beckham continues on England's 2018 World Cup campaign trail, rival bid nations are staging their own charm offensives in what is becoming an increasingly intense public relations lobbying battle.
Having met both FIFA president Sepp Blatter and vice-president Jack Warner on Wednesday, Beckham was due to go into the townships on Thursday to visit one of the FA's international development programmes on the outskirts of Cape Town.
After weeks of negative publicity about their bid and the perceived lack of an established figurehead, the next 48 hours are considered pivotal in terms of momentum swinging back England's way in the battle to secure the 13 FIFA votes needed to bring the World Cup to the country for the first time in half a century.
Buffeted by recent political in-fighting, England bid officials are using Beckham's presence in South Africa to maximum effect. On Friday, Beckham and a number of other fellow ambassadors go head-to-head with the other 2018 and 2022 candidates at a highly anticipated media briefing on the morning of next summer's World Cup draw.
The first-ever gathering of all 10 bidding nations under the same roof promises to be a fiercely competitive occasion with each jostling for attention and showcasing their particular attributes. In this regard, England have some catching up to do.
At the Soccerex conference in Johannesburg earlier this week, attended by many of the game's movers and shakers, both Qatar and Russia took strategically positioned stands within view of every single visitor. England, for their part. went for a far more low-key approach by sponsoring a post-event cocktail party and offered nothing new in terms of why they - rather than any of their competitors - deserved to stage the World Cup in nine years' time.
Contrast that with Russia, one of England's main adversaries for 2018, and Qatar which is focusing on 2022. Sitting in a corner of what the Russians aptly named Red Square Lounge, Alexey Sorokin, CEO of the Russian bid, made no apologies for the fact that his country has the financial muscle at its disposal. "We envisage a public budget of $20 million and we anticipate a similar amount coming from private money," said Sorokin. "No less."
That, almost certainly, means a significant input from oligarchs like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. "We know that Abramovich personally supports the idea of the World Cup being in Russia though he has not yet made any public announcements,'' he added. "Making the World Cup happen in Russia would change the future not only of football but sport generally in our country."
Taking on three other European bidders is no easy task but Sorokin is bullish without being arrogant about getting past the post ahead of England and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium.
"We'll try to prove that a World Cup in Russia will make a difference," he said. "Russia is very interestingly situated between Europe and Asia. Technically we are a European bid but we are hoping to bring football development to two Continents. Russia influences football in a vast region of our planet, maybe 20-plus countries."
Sorokin distances himself from the infrastructural setbacks afflicting the 2012 European Championships being staged for the first time in Eastern Europe by Poland and Ukraine. "Russia is very trendy, transparent and integrated now," he says. "It's our time."
That's what Qatar feels too about 2002, not least Dutch legend Ronald de Boer whose family have settled in the Middle Eastern country after he ended his career there. "People have a pre-judgment about Qatar and it's time that we changed that," says de Boer.
Interestingly the one bidder conspicuous by its absence at Soccerex was hotly fancied Spain/Portugal, all the more so since the joint bid is considered England's chief rival. With the three South American votes among FIFA's 24-strong executive committee almost certain already in the bag, perhaps they felt confident enough to leave Soccerex off their promotional agenda which smacked of complacency.
Quite why Spain are not going it alone remains a mystery though there are unconfirmed stories that a deal was struck between the two Iberian governments to launch a joint offensive. That will be one of the main issues the Spanish and Portuguese will doubtless explain on Friday.
Australia, with strong government backing, are an increasingly dangerous dark horse while the United States are more likely to take on Qatar for 2022. As for European underdogs Holland and Belgium, they are using central European access as one of their main promotional tickets along with the fact they are two of FIFA's founder members. They are determined to stay the course though it is hard to see them securing enough of FIFA's 24-strong executive committee.
Which brings us back to England who already, it appears, have one key ally in their ranks. Football legend Franz Beckenbauer says that following South Africa next year and then Brazil in 2014, it is imperative that the World Cup returns to Europe in 2018 - with England top of his list.
"England have a great chance of hosting," said Beckenbauer, the only man to both captain and manage World Cup-winning teams. "They are an excellent football country and could stage the World Cup tomorrow. They don't have to build any new stadiums. Plus they have the infrastructure. But what is vital is that the World Cup absolutely must come back to Europe. We have to do everything, from the European side, to bring in back."