`Bribery' claim upsets England

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FOOTBALL POLITICS is a dirty game so it was easy to be cynical about yesterday's announcement by the Football Association that it will invite nearly 2,500 children to "enjoy the World Cup experience", should England's bid for the 2006 tournament succeed.

"A glorified bribe" was the general consensus of the press and it is a view which will be echoed in foreign parts, perhaps too many for the bid's comfort. There was also a bitter irony in the realisation that Tony Blair had broken off from launching air strikes on Serbia to invite a dozen Yugoslavian children to England. Despite the conflict in the Balkans, Yugoslavia remain one of the 203 Fifa members and were thus included in the invite.

While this is potentially embarrassing, especially if Belgrade makes political capital from it, the conflict will surely be resolved well before 2006. With that in mind, the invite could actually justify Sir Bobby Charlton's comment that football can bring people together.

Sir Bobby, unfortunately, was less circumspect in dealing with a mischievous question asked by a German journalist. "Had the fighting and the pitch invasion at the end of last week's FA Cup semi-final replay harmed the bid?"

Sir Bobby, who was at Villa Park, said: "If I had found a route down to the pitch I'd have gone down there and joined them." This faux pas was compounded by Tony Banks, the sports minister. No stranger to gaffes, he first claimed, incorrectly, that there was no fighting, then added: "They were celebrating. They came on to the pitch to chair off their heroes. What would you have done?"

The comments came as the FA begins an inquiry into the pitch invasion which followed Manchester United's victory. While it is true that most fans were celebratory, there were several scuffles involving fans and stewards. The United fans were later heavily criticised by Villa Park's safety officer.

Sir Bobby, a Manchester United director, added: "It was euphoria that spilled over but if the FA want to fine Manchester United we'll have to accept it. We don't want people on the field."

The identity of the questioner, and that of the next one - a South African who asked if, given the emphasis on "Fair Play" during a promotional video, was it "not fair play" that Africa should have a turn at staging a World Cup - underlined that the campaign is intensifying. The decision is to be made by Fifa in 11 months time and the FA, while it clearly has the slickest campaign, is aware that South Africa have the emotional pull and the support of Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, and Germany have more influence in the corridors of power.

Thus yesterday's launch of "England's Welcome to the World: An invitation to the youth of the world." The Westminster press conference was accompanied by a photocall with the Prime Minister and a dozen multi-ethnic children from Wanstead in the garden at Downing Street. Foreign press were particularly welcome.

It was easy to be cynical, especially when Alec McGiven, the campaign director, subtly pin-pointed England's rivals' perceived weaknesses in his address. England, he said, had "100 per cent government backing, was a safe country to travel in, and has sophisticated high-tech hotels and infrastructure." These comments referred, in turn, to the bids from Germany, South Africa, and the rest (Ghana, Nigeria, Morocco and Brazil).

No wonder we were cynical. But think for a moment of the impact the invitation could have for nearly 2,500 children, most from countries so poor that very few people travel abroad for anything. These children will not only have their air fares met and accommodation provided (with host families), they would also attend two World Cup matches and be coached by famous names.

While Sir Bobby spoke well of the opportunities the invitation offered, three years of campaigning have educated him in the black arts and, for those whose vote would not be secured by the FA's generosity, he played a different card. The scheme can be afforded, said Sir Bobby, because with the stadiums already built "England will make a lot of money from the World Cup." A pause and he added: "Fifa will make a lot of money from the World Cup."