Football: Fifa leaves the lobbyists in the lurch

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE THE scenario. England's beleaguered national football team somehow manages to grab victory from the jaws of defeat later this year, qualifies for Euro 2000 and suddenly sends hopes soaring of previously unimaginable success.

But once they have made the short hop across the Channel to the Netherlands and Belgium, the country's notorious hooligan element again bring shame on the nation that invented the game.

Until two days ago, England might, by the time such hooliganism takes place, have already been awarded the 2006 World Cup. Rioting by the senseless minority at Euro 2000 would certainly have heaped embarrassment on the football authorities but could not have changed the votes of those who had opted for England to stage the ultimate tournament.

Now things are different. The totally unexpected decision by Fifa, the game's world governing body, to put off the vote from March to July next year not only means more cost, more time and more effort but also presents more tension for those who have been aggressively lobbying the men who matter in a series of high-level meetings on the outskirts of Beverley Hills this week.

As the Sports Minister, Tony Banks, winged his way into Los Angeles in the early hours of Wednesday morning to add government backing to such lobbying, he was not aware of the Fifa decision. Apparently, Banks was not a happy man when he arrived. And it was not only because of jet lag.

Publicly, all five candidates - or rather four of them, because Brazil have been conspicuous by their absence - are trying to put on a brave face. But many of them question why, after what seems like an eternity of fierce campaigning, they now have to appear before Fifa's six continental federations to put forward the same self-promotional rhetoric that has already been discussed and debated from Norway to New Zealand.

"I am completely surprised by this news," said Horst Schmidt, the general secretary of the German Football Association, who is leading his country's bid. "Why do we have to do this? OK, it's another four months and won't make a lot of difference, but was it really necessary?"

Even the very men who will vote on who gets the tournament in 2006 are shaking their heads in disbelief at the sudden postponement, including David Will, the most committed supporter of the English bid, who feels that, if the individual confederations will not know by next March who they favour, they never will.

So why was it done? "Because it is fairer," said Chuck Blazer, the Fifa executive committee member who suggested the idea and got it passed unopposed. Blazer, the general secretary of Concacaf, the game's governing body in North and Central America, and a good friend of the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, had been toying with his proposal for two months.

He points out that Fifa had originally brought the vote forward to March to make the whole procedure move faster. All he was doing, he said, was reverting to the traditional time-frame. "I was in the Bahamas making arrangements for our own Congress and I suddenly realised that in the past, World Cup decisions were always made following the congresses. All I did this week was to restore a process that had been previously in place so that the membership at large can study each bid before the actual vote takes place."

This, of course, now means more air miles for Alec McGivan and his campaign team, right up to 30 June when Uefa, the game's European governing body, holds its congress in Luxembourg. It also intensifies the question of whether or not Manchester United should have accepted an invitation to play in the World Club Championship in January, which will now be six months away from the 2006 vote, instead of two.

Hardly anyone in Los Angeles this week was prepared to declare publicly that there was a direct link between United's decision and England's bid hopes. Rival bidders, including Germany's Franz Beckenbauer, understandably shrugged off any connection between the two. But, privately, many of the 24 Fifa executives who will vote a year from now made clear their delight at United's participation, whether or not it has been forced on the club by government pressure.

"I know all the executive members very well and I can tell you there has been excellent feedback," said Will. "Whether or not England will win extra votes by competing I can't say. What I can say is that it would have been very damaging to our hopes if they hadn't gone."

The same views were expressed by the chairman of the World Club Championship organising committee, Abdullah Al-Dabal of Saudi Arabia, who had a two- hour breakfast meeting on Wednesday with Banks and McGivan. "I am certain that Manchester United will elevate the value of the championship," Al- Dabal said afterwards. "It is very necessary for the six confederations to feel that there is solidarity. I would like to thank the English FA for taking a very courageous move."

Not particularly revealing language on the face of it but just about as far as Fifa delegates go, diplomatically, to give an idea of what they are thinking. Crucially, Al-Dabal is one of four Asians on the Fifa executive committee. Four votes that are up for grabs, given that Asia is not bidding for 2006, having secured the World Cup four years earlier. A fact that is not lost on England's campaign team.

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