The England 2018 World Cup bid committee was drawn into a row last night with the BBC after the corporation revealed that the bid team had bought £230 Mulberry handbags for the wives of the 24 members of the Fifa executive committee (ExCo).
The dispute will overshadow the 2018 campaign's announcement today that it has signed up 67 famous footballers, past and present, to support the bid. One of the handbags was give to Jack Warner, the ExCo member who launched a rambling attack on the England bid earlier this month during a visit to London.
The handbags saga was reported on the BBC six o'clock news, dismaying those in the bid team who said that the gift did not break any Fifa rules and was in keeping with normal hospitality protocol. It is understood that Mulberry was chosen because it was a British brand and showcased British creativity.
It will be the votes of the Fifa ExCo which will decide the host of the World Cup finals December next year, although it is understood that the handbags will be the most expensive gift on offer from England. A 2018 bid spokesman said last night: "Fifa have a set of guidelines for all bidders which include direction on what constitutes an acceptable campaign gift. All our gifts are carefully chosen so as to be within both the spirit and letter of that law."
Though the gifts are legal, issue raises the spectre of corruption that once dogged the International Olympic Committee, whose members were offered, among other things, bursaries for their children to attend universities by competing host cities. Given the doubts that exist over the credibility of some Fifa ExCo members, it is a delicate path to walk.
However, the 2018 committee, which has a limited budget and is still waiting for £5m in funding from the government, is aware that other nations are stealing a march on it. The rival Australian bid is understood to be using the billionaire Frank Lowy, who built the Westfield shopping complex in west London, to entertain ExCo members on his yacht. Qatar, which is bidding for the 2022 World Cup finals, is using next month's friendly between England and Brazil in Doha as a huge hospitality event to impress Fifa.
The 2018 committee will give the lie to Warner's claims that England's bid lacks star quality by announcing today that it has a host of famous supporters from all over the world – even Germany. Chelsea's midfielder Michael Ballack, Robinho, Sven Goran Eriksson, Gianfranco Zola and even two players from Warner's own nation of Trinidad & Tobago, Kenwyne Jones and Carlos Edwards, have signed up to become "2018 ambassadors".
The bid committee is adamant that plans to recruit the ambassadors were in place long before Warner launched his attack on the "lightweights" of England's bid.
All-star line-up: Backing the bid
Aaron Mokoena (South Africa), Alan Shearer, Alexandre Song (Cameroon), Andrew Cole, Ashley Young, Brian Deane, Bryan Robson, Carlos Edwards (Trinidad & Tobago), Chris Powell, Cyrille Regis, David Beckham, David James, David Seaman, Des Walker, Emile Heskey, Gareth Southgate, Gary Lineker, Gary Mabbutt, Gianfranco Zola (Italy), Glenn Hoddle, Graeme Le Saux, Graham Taylor, Howard Wilkinson, James Milner, John Barnes, John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), John Terry, Joseph Yobo (Nigeria), Kanu (Nigeria), Kenwyne Jones (Trinidad & Tobago), Kolo Toure (Ivory Coast), Lucas Radebe (South Africa), Luther Blissett, Michael Ballack (Germany), Michael Chopra, Michael Essien (Ghana), Muzzy Izzet (Turkey), Ossie Ardiles (Argentina), Paul Elliott, Paul Ince, Paul Parker, Peter Beardsley, Peter Crouch, Peter Shilton, Phil Neville, Ray Clemence, Ray Wilkins, Ricardo Villa (Argentina), Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Earle (Jamaica) Roberto Di Matteo (Italy), Robinho (Brazil), Roque Santa Cruz (Paraguay), Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard, Steven Pienaar (South Africa), Stuart Pearce, Sven Goran Eriksson (Sweden), Teddy Sheringham, Terry Venables, Tony Adams, Tony Woodcock, Victor Anichebe (Nigeria), Viv Anderson, Wayne Rooney, Zesh Rehman (Pakistan).