Column One: Fair play: A World Cup bid in a league of its own

AS OWN goals go, it was a classic.

Driss Benhima, Morocco's football supremo, was making his pitch for his country to be chosen to host the 2006 World Cup. The opposition lining up against him would be formidable: England, Germany, Brazil, South Africa. But Mr Benhima was undaunted by the big league. He had a game plan - honesty rather than hype.

"We know our weaknesses," he said with stunning candour as he outlined his bid to an international gathering at the Foreign Press Association in London. "A lack of facilities and a lack of stadiums."

He was not exaggerating. Morocco has two football venues, whereas it is generally reckoned that, to stage a World Cup, you need something like nine or 10.

You also need pretty good communications to handle hundreds of thousands of supporters. On this, too, Mr Benhima had to admit that Morocco was not best placed. The country's infrastructure, he conceded, needed some work, too, though he was keen to highlight recent advances. "Six years ago we had only 62 kilometres of freeways," he said. "Now we have more than 400." He added that there were plans afoot to join the prospective venues with main roads.

His country was also a little late in joining the race, he conceded. "Our launch was in May - rather later than our main competitors. But it doesn't mean we're not serious."

And then came his argument for the cause of the underdog. "We are the bid of the poor people, who love football all round the world, who have no money. If Fifa is behaving like a profit-maximising organisation, trying to raise the most money possible from sponsors and the media, then Morocco is not the place for the World Cup. We cannot compete on this basis."

That Fifa hands out World Cups precisely on this basis, he chose valiantly to brush aside. It did not concern him that South Africa - considered the favourite to win the tournament - had spent a reported pounds 12m on promoting its bid, or that England had a kitty of pounds 10m. It fazed him only a little that he was not certain of his own budget, estimated at between pounds 3m and pounds 6m.

Morocco, Mr Benhima insisted, was a genuine contender. Was it not ranked the 19th best soccer nation in the world? Did its citizens not adore the game? "Morocco is a true country of football - we've always held up the football flag."

What about the fact that two previous bids for the tournament have been rejected out of hand? "This shows the tenacity of Morocco to be the first in Africa to hold the World Cup," he rebounded.

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