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Dec 2, 2010

Battle heats up as decision looms

The air is fresh and clean, the streets dusted white with snow. Festive lights are dotted around the trees. Zurich is absolutely beautiful this time of year. Inside, it is quite the opposite. The heat is on in a fierce battle to the host the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. Lobbying tactics are dark and sometimes dirty. So much so it almost spoils the view. What we see in the distance is nothing but a haze. Most of the bidding nations appear lost in the whole process. They may try to convince you otherwise, but nobody really knows who to trust. Those 22 FIFA Executive Committee members who will vote give precious little away. They seem to hedge their bets, creating deep uncertainty among those begging for their support. The stakes are raised as the final hours of lobbying intensify. At the time of writing, representatives for the nine bids are lining up to meet world football's powerbrokers at the official FIFA hotel. There are strategies in place, promises have been made, but a day is a long time in politics, especially with every single one of your rivals in town all fighting for the same thing in an ever-changing environment. England, Russia and the Spain-Portugal joint bid have all had spells as the supposed front-runners for the 2018 event. The only thing for certain here is that the Belgium-Netherlands bid barely rates a mention. For 2022, it is just as tough to call. Qatar, Australian and the United States have all made progress. Japan and South Korea are considered the rank outsiders. Having spent some time with the Australian delegation, I see the look in their eyes, filled with anxiety and hope. They have a quality bid - few people would dispute that - but the harsh reality is that, much like the game of football itself, the best team does not always come out on top. This is the side to FIFA that makes me terribly uncomfortable. Allegations of corruption have already left a stain. They were so serious that two FIFA EXCO members had to be removed from the voting process. FIFA's Ethics Committee did not find sufficient evidence to pursue claims that Qatar and Spain-Portugal had colluded to trade votes - all involved were cleared - but I have heard this story raised time and time again since arriving in Zurich. Conspiracy theories abound, like the one that has Russia hosting in 2018, USA in 2022 and China in 2026. You come away thinking, albeit for a brief moment, "is that the way it will really play out?" All will be revealed soon enough.

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