World Cup bidding war starts in earnest
The draw for next summer's World Cup finals may have been the global focus of sporting attention in Cape Town on Friday but, a few hours earlier, another World Cup drama was unfolding in the palatial grounds of a government building on the outskirts of the city.
Forget the rhetoric of the previous few months. The campaign to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups began in earnest under a cloudless sky as, for the first time, all ten bidding candidates converged under a giant marquee at the official residence of the governor of the Western Cape.
England had David Beckham, Spain/Portugal went for Fernando Hierro and Luis Figo and Holland offered up Ruud Gullit to the assorted media throng. So who came out on top and who were the fall guys?
After weeks of negative publicity and internal feuding, the English bid certainly moved up the gears as Beckham - mobbed by cameramen - made a glittering appearance after, it emerged, spending the early part of the morning locked in conversation with Michel Platini.
England's colourless video presentation may have been one of the weakest - Australia had Nicole Kidman proclaiming a "no worries World Cup" if her country got the nod a year from now - and their publicity material was minimal. But Beckham more than made up for it.
"Just because we are England doesn't mean we are going to get the World Cup in our country," he said. "We realise there is a lot of hard work to be done and we have to be prepared to do that. I've always said I would do everything I can to bring the World Cup to the country."
England's bid officials were clearly delighted with the impact Beckham had made after so much internal sniping that threatened to derail the whole process. "When we get our act together, we can put on a formidable performance," said an England bid spokesman. "Ears are sometimes closed but this is an international campaign."
Ever since the bid began, no one has quite been able to figure out why Spain have linked up with Portugal. Even if Holland and Belgium is understandable - two small western European nations who need each other to make one credible bid.
But why Spain AND Portugal? "We are much stronger with Portugal and a far stronger candidate," said bid ambassador and former Portuguese captain Luis Figo, not entirely convincingly. Figo played with Beckham at Real Madrid and against him at two European Championships. Now he finds himself opposing Beckham on the sports politics front.
"I hope he makes the England World Cup team next summer because he's experienced and you never lose the quality. But for 2018? I obviously hope I beat him."
The Spanish and Portuguese didn't gain many brownie points in terms of public relations when the arrival of Hierro and Figo took place slap bang in the middle of the United States' video screening, infuriating U.S. bid officials. "It was totally ruined," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said. "I think there's an element of fair play in our sport. That was bad form."
The Americans are doing their best to convince FIFA that joint bids are not the way forward but their own case for staging the tournament - the best stadiums and a commercial windfall - is nothing new and not in itself a strong enough argument for 2018 compared with some of the European bids. Expect the Americans to go for 2022 and do a quid-pro-quo voting deal with Europe in 2018. Maybe England since it was noticeable just how pally the two camps were on Friday, just as they are at political level.
The one continent that could mess up the entire equation is Asia, though their planning is not altogether on an even keel. Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Qatar all favour 2022 over 2018. Qatar have mounted a particularly strong challenge with plenty of cash at their disposal and the clever operational skills of Mike Lee, the doyen of public relations when it comes to bid winning, the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics being cases in point. But only one Asian country will get the nod, if at all, and Australia look to have perhaps the most obvious case. The Aussie video screening on Thursday was fresh and fun, and so was their stand. But their actual bid is deadly serious. With South Korea and Japan having staged the tournament in 2002, there is no love lost between the pair of them and the Aussies are geographically in the last remaining region not to have held the World Cup - Oceania.
Australian sports minister Kate Ellis was bullish in the extreme, even shrugging off the David Beckham syndrome. "We have $45 million of government funding on the table and are willing to do everything to show the rest of the world that we are deadly serious," she said. "England may have David Beckham here. We have eight smiling, enthusiastic, young football-loving children."
Ellis rejected claims that kick-off times wouldn't suit the highly coveted European TV markets if the tournament is staged down under. "We think we can overcome that. We did so with the Sydney Olympics at a time when the rest of the world tuned in. We think we can do it with the World Cup too."