Africa stakes claim to the World Cup

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The Independent Online
THE MOST powerful men in world football gather in Cannes tomorrow for the business equivalent of the World Cup. The event, Football Expo, brings together all the main political players in the sport. It also represents the kick-off of a furious round of wheeler-dealing by the eight countries competing to host the World Cup in 2006.

Leading contenders for this lucrative prize, the football associations of England, South Africa and Germany, are all expected to attend. They will be lobbying furiously because many of Fifa's 24-strong executive committee, which makes the ultimate decision, will also be there.

The event, which runs until Thursday, is set against a backdrop of unusually vicious in-fighting in the sport. There is a growing unease in the rest of the world about Europe's domination of the decision-making process.

Nine of the 24 Fifa seats are filled by Europeans; Africa and Asia have four apiece; South America and Concacaf (the regional confederation of the Caribbean, North and Central America) have three each and Oceania one. Controversially, the four British football associations have had a permanent seat on the committee since a Luxembourg congress in 1946.

There is also an ongoing stand-off between the presidents of Uefa and Fifa (Lennart Johansson and Sepp Blatter) over plans to hold the World Cup every two years, rather than every four. Mr Blatter, who publicly expressed his preference for a World Cup in Africa, claims finals every two years would ensure a more level playing field for would-be host nations. "The other contenders have a better chance to host it sooner," he said.

But the English FA has not taken the bait. Roger Kelly, spokesman for England's 2006 campaign, said: "At the moment it is only a suggestion. We won't react until we hear something more definite. We confidently expect to get 2006."

Some claim Blatter's sugges-tion is a ploy to destabilise Uefa's power base, to sideline the European Championships and replace Europe's nascent club league with more international competition. Lennart Johansson, the man Blatter beat to become Fifa's president last year, remarked: "The risk, of course, is that the representatives from the big clubs in Europe would turn to me and say 'This we cannot accept'."

Behind the spat lies deeper disquiet about the Eurocentric nature of Fifa. Chuck Blazer, General Secretary of USA Concacaf and a member of Fifa's executive, said: "I don't think that the current structure is equitable. To pass any motion you only need the European block votes and those of one other confederation, and that's not a good thing. I just hope these calls for change fall on ears which are sensitive to football, not politics."

Ironically enough, the debate moved firmly into the political arena last Thursday, as South African President Nelson Mandela, who was involved in producing the South African promotional video, teased Tony Blair: "Won't you be generous and withdraw [your bid]?"

Danny Jordan, chief executive officer for the bid, said: "We are making a bid for the very first time, while others are asking for a second bite of the cherry. Of 16 World Cups, Europe has hosted nine; Africa none. Tradition and history suggest that it's almost been the automatic right of Europe since 1930. But to make the competition meaningful, to protect the global sport from marginalisation, the scales have to be rebalanced." The host for the 2006 World Cup will be designated next March.

Roger Kelly said: "It's like a general election, but instead of millions of voters, there are 24 football politicians to convince. It's not as if we can wear a rosette saying 'vote for us'."