Football: England 'front runners' in race for 2006

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The Football Association believes that England are leading the race in the bid to stage the World Cup in 2006.

As Mark Pierson reports, the FA has not been deterred either by Germany's rival candidature or by recent comments from senior football officials giving encouragement to South Africa's chances of staging the tournament.

There is plenty of lobbying still to be done, but Alec McGivan, director of the campaign to bring the 2006 World Cup to England, was in confident mood yesterday as he assessed the chances of making a successful bid.

"People are beginning to become more receptive to our bid," he said. "It's fair to say there was some antagonism 12 months ago, but that's now been replaced by friendly smiles.

"We have answered all the questions needed in our proposal. We have the total support of the Government as well as the whole UK sporting community. Our bid was in place first, our stadiums are ready and the game in this country is thriving. We are the front runners and the team to beat. It's now up to the others to produce some proof that they have better facilities than us."

England and Germany are the only confirmed candidates, although bids are also expected from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Peru.

Uefa had been keen to put forward only one candidate and there have been disagreements over whether the European game's governing body had agreed to put its weight behind the German proposals. The FA insisted that no such policy had been agreed.

There have also been suggestions - endorsed recently by the former German captain and coach Franz Beckenbauer - that England and Germany could co- host the tournament. Japan and South Korea will jointly stage the 2002 World Cup.

McGivan said that the FA would oppose any such plan but was prepared to discuss it if asked to do so by Fifa, the world game's governing body.

"Long term, sharing the finals may become the norm because of the logistics involved in hosting an event of this size," McGivan said. "However, we confidently believe that we will have no problems staging the event by ourselves."

McGivan also dismissed as "pure politics" the recent comments apparently in support of a South African bid by Joao Havelange, Fifa's president, and Lennart Johansson, his counterpart at Uefa. Both men are playing key roles in the current race to elect a new Fifa president.

"It doesn't concern me at all," McGivan said. "Only last week we received a letter from Dr Havelange praising England's bid and the ever-improving facilities in this country. Fifa secretary general Sepp Blatter has also been very positive about our campaign."

The FA's commitment to the bid has been underlined by the fact that they have put together a 15-strong campaign team, who did much lobbying at the World Cup draw in Marseilles last month and at the recent Confederations Cup tournament in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile preparation continue for England's build-up to this year's World Cup finals in France. The organisers of the King Hassad II tournament in May in Morocco yesterday announced a playing schedule for the competition, although England have still to reach a final agreement on their participation.

England are set to launch the tournament against Morocco on 27 May. Two days later Glenn Hoddle's team are lined up to play Belgium. The matches will be played in the 70,000-capacity Mohammed V Stadium in Rabat.