Football: Havelange backs land of gold and diamonds

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The 1998 World Cup draw may be the centre of attention in Marseilles but, behind the scenes, the 2006 candidates are seeking to win friends and influence people. Glenn Moore reports.

South Africa received the biggest boost in the race to host the World Cup yesterday when Joao Havelange, the retiring president of the sport's world governing body, Fifa, offered them a ringing endorsement. "South Africa has all the facilities to host the World Cup,"said the 82-year- old Brazilian. "It's the world No 1 in gold and diamonds and has good communications, road, transport, hotels and stadiums. They have everything needed - all they have to do is ask."

Fortunately for England, Havelange can no longer decide hosts by himself, but he remains influential. Alec McGiven the head of England's bid, said: "South Africa have not entered yet, but it would not be a surprise if they are in contention when the decision is made in two and a half years' time."

Havelange's opinion is interesting, but other people will be making the decision. The Football Association, with bid ambassadors Sir Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst, are conducting a series of low-key briefings with senior foreign journalists. They will be joined today by Tony Banks, the sports minister.

Also in Marseilles yesterday was Alan Shearer, here to complete a 15- year endorsement deal with Umbro which will take him to the age of 42. The deal is worth millions, depending on his and his teams' successes, possibly pounds 10m-20m.

The England and Newcastle United striker confirmed that he did not expect to play again until March but was confident he would be fit for the finals. "The specialist has told me when my ankle injury is mended it will be better than ever," he said.