Football: United in case of damage limitation

Tim Collings says the FA Cup sacrifice can tip the 2006 scales
ON THE surface it may appear that Manchester United and their supporters have made one of football's greatest sacrifices by agreeing not to defend their FA Cup crown next season.

Events over the next few days in Los Angeles, however, could significantly lessen the blow. Intensive lobbying by prospective candidates wishing to hold the 2006 World Cup are certain, in England's case at least, to centre around United's willingness to take part in the World Club Championship in Brazil.

Although the future of the eight-team tournament is uncertain - Fifa have not yet even announced when or where the subsequent competition will be staged - United's participation is already being hailed as a major public relations coup by those who will decide the fate of the 2006 tournament.

Cynics may scoff at such quid pro quo politics but this is the way the world operates these days. Fifa spokesman Keith Cooper has been extensively quoted over the past few days as saying that United's participation will not have the slightest bearing on England's 2006 bid.

But Cooper is bound to steer the party line. Talk to those who are bidding, and those who are voting next March, and you get an entirely different picture.

Hence the reason why the 2006 campaign team, led by Alec McGivan, left for California this weekend, determined to milk every opportunity to enhance England's bid. Meetings are planned with as many of Fifa's 24 executive committee members as possible, both at the Soccer-Ex trade fair involving many of the game's movers and shakers, and at the Fifa Congress that follows, attended by all 203 member nations.

On paper, the main issue being discussed in Los Angeles is Asia's request for an additional place at the next World Cup in 2002. Currently, the Asians have two automatic places in Japan and South Korea, the joint hosts, and two qualifying spots. But they are determined, since the tournament is on home soil, to press for more. The question is, who gives way, Europe or South America?

Other matters on the agenda include the proposal by the Fifa president Sepp Blatter to streamline the international football calendar and a firm date for the 2006 vote. Everyone knows it takes place in March. No one knows which day.

Although not formally up for discussion, the burning issue in the corridors of the Century Plaza hotel, which Fifa has virtually taken over, will be the World Club Championship. Although only two of Fifa's 24 executive committee members, David Will and New Zealand's Charlie Dempsey, have stated publicly that they will vote for England, there seems little question that United's decision to take up the invitation to travel to Brazil will have immensely favourable repercussions among the other 22 members.

"I know the individual members of the executive committee and I know some of them are extremely keen on this competition," Will said . "I also know how they would have reacted if Manchester United had decided not to go. I believe it would have had a disastrous effect."

Eight teams are taking part, one from each of the six confederations, another from the host country plus the winners of the Inter-Continental Cup. Those so far confirmed, apart from Manchester United, include the likes of Al Nasr from Saudi Arabia, Vasco da Gama of Brazil, Real Madrid of Spain and the Brazilian hosts, Corinthians.

Will accepts that the tournament's future is uncertain. "Everyone is waiting to see how successful the first one is. If it proves a success, I would expect it to be every two or every four years. There's been anxiety among several people in Fifa to hold this competition. Now let's see if it's a success or a flop."

Regardless of the quality of opposition - and there are many who claim United are wasting their time playing against the likes of the Asian champions - England's 2006 bid team are thrilled to bits at United's unprecedented concession.

"We expected Fifa to take an official stance, they can't really do anything else," McGivan, the 2006 bid campaign director, said. "But everyone knows that politics plays a big part as do the views of Fifa members. I understand why people find it hard to grasp the relationship between this competition and withdrawing from the FA Cup but it should not be taken in isolation. You should be looking at England's relationship with world football. It was the same with the recent world youth championships in Nigeria. In my view, if we hadn't taken part, it would have been very damaging."

Peter Corrigan, page 14