Russia’s bid has Putin onside, England’s has a psychic octopus. But the fight for 2018 is serious

FA’s World Cup credentials come under the microscope when Fifa’s inspectors come calling this week
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On Monday morning six men in suits will step off an aeroplane at Heathrow and be whisked to the Dorchester Hotel in London.

Over the following three days they will criss-cross the country gathering information that will go some way to determining England's chances of hosting the 2018 World Cup. If the trip goes badly it could end any hope of the tournament coming home for at least another 20 years.

England is the penultimate stop for Fifa's inspection team, led by the president of the Chilean FA, Harold Mayne-Nicholls, as they tour the nations bidding for arguably the greatest prize in sport. On Thursday they completed their visit to Russia, seen as England's biggest rivals; the next stop is Madrid, to take in the joint bid of Spain and Portugal. They have already been to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Once the inspections are completed, the bid teams will have three more months of global glad-handing before the 24 members of Fifa's executive committee (Ex-co) shut themselves in a no doubt well-appointed conference room in their Zurich HQ and vote on 2 December. If England fail to convince this diverse group of men there is no chance of the World Cup coming to this country until 2030 at the earliest.

Each member of Ex-co has one vote, although some vote in confederation blocks. England are believed to have the support of the Asian vote after the influential Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar lavished praise on the Premier League and its impact in the region. He carries four votes with him, and England are set to play a friendly in Thailand next summer to help keep the Thai representative Worawi Makudi onside. The pre-World Cup friendly with Egypt ticked another box – Hany Abo Rida is an Egyptian presence on the Ex-co. In May, members of the bid team trekked around South America, in July they headed for South Africa. There will be many more trips in the next couple of months, but for the next few days the focus will be on home soil.

England's bid team is confident it will not be found wanting in comparison to what the Russians have laid on this week with meetings in the Kremlin and a banquet in St Petersburg's Yusupov Palace. Rasputin was murdered in the palace and the Fifa team could have taken a turn around the "Mad Monk" museum before dinner. A trip to the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussauds would probably be the English equivalent, but that is not understood to be on the schedule. Neither will there be David Beckham – his presence in South Africa and in delivering the bid book in Zurich earlier this year was a fillip to a campaign that was struggling with internal problems. And nor will there be the Prime Minister.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin, as well as the Dutch and Belgium PMs, all entertained the inspectors, but David Cameron will be on holiday and in his stead Nick Clegg will do the meeting and greeting. Cameron telephoned Sepp Blatter personally to apologise and invite him to No 10 in the autumn. Bid insiders are adamant no damage has been done by the Prime Minister's decision to head for Cornwall. And fear not: in the most bizarre turn of a fairly complicated process, Paul the psychic octopus, who found fame predicting results at the World Cup, has been signed up as an official ambassador.

It was noticeable that Mayne-Nicholls closed the Russian inspection on Thursday with a press conference in which he lavished praise on Putin, although there was enough in the Chilean's verdict, with some obvious concern over the amount of work that needs to be done, to offer England hope.

The relative compactness of England's bid will be apparent. The visit will begin with Wembley, and perhaps some royal involvement, before spreading out across the country. They will not take in all 12 cities and 17 stadiums, but will at least visit each region. The bid team has carried out exhaustive rehearsals and launched such schemes as Back the Bid Week and Wear Your Shirt to Work Day, on Tuesday, to coincide with the inspection.

The last time England bid for the World Cup, for the 2006 finals, it ended in embarrassment as the FA was accused of reneging on a deal with Germany to back them. This campaign has had problems too. The resignation of Sir Dave Richards just days after a restructuring of the board in November suggested a split with the Premier League which the two bodies have been at pains to repair since. But the tabloid sting that did for Lord Triesman in May and revealed his allegations of impropriety against the Russians and Spanish did not cause as much damage as was feared. Fifa luminaries were not impressed by a fellow blazerati being turned over by the tabloids.

If next Thursday, as is very possible, Mayne-Nicholls delivers a glowing report it will be back to the smoke-filled rooms and one last frantic round of politicising before everyone decamps to Zurich for decision day.

The Bids

England

There have been moments when it has looked like David Beckham against the world, but the England bid is in a good place, at least if judged on bricks and mortar and planes, trains and automobiles. None of the other bidders can equal England's existing infrastructure – only four of the 17 stadiums will be built from scratch. Having not hosted the tournament since 1966 and allied to the country's football heritage, it makes for a strong case. The technical side of England's bid is strong. It is also a compact bid in comparison to the Russian one. Financially, England's numbers will appeal to Fifa – they are forecasting a profit of £268m from stadium hospitality alone. But England have struggled historically to win friends and influence Fifa people. Odds: 5-4

Russia

They may not be the bookmakers' favourites, but many observers see them as the front-runners, notwithstanding obvious problems. Fifa's inspection team has just completed an exhausting visit in which members were ushered from St Petersburg to Moscow and on to Sochi in the very south, being feted at every turn. In St Petersburg they visited the Mariinsky Theatre, in Moscow they were entertained in the Kremlin and met with Vladimir Putin, who has been an enthusiastic global promoter of the Russian bid. The noises coming out of Fifa highlight Russia's growing popularity. The troubled birthing of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption, the fact that most of the World Cup bid exists only on paper and requires huge levels of construction, a lack of accommodation and the size of the country and distances involved are the negatives. In their favour is Blatter's quest for new footballing frontiers – Russia is a big market. Odds: 2-1

Spain-Portugal

Not so much the dark horse as the dozing horse. On the surface they have done little to advance their bid, adopting a low-key approach – they were the last bidders to launch a website – but, headed by Angel Maria Villar Llona, a veteran of football politics, they are well connected and have the added clout of Spain being the sport's current darlings. It may be a joint bid, but it is not a balanced one, with 16 Spanish host cities and two in Portugal, Lisbon and Porto. The opening game will be played in Lisbon, the final in Madrid. Luis Figo plays their Beckham role, while Fernando Torres has featured heavily in promotional material, but it is Villar Llona who is the key figure. A former Spanish international, he has served as the country's federation president and also held senior roles with Fifa and Uefa. He is currently a vice-president of Fifa. Spain hosted the 1982 World Cup, while Portugal staged the European Championship six years ago. Odds: 3-1

And the outsiders:

Netherlands-Belgium

In telling contrast to Russia, the Low Countries are playing the small-is-beautiful card for all its worth. After the sprawling tournaments of South Africa and Brazil, their pitch is that it is time to downsize again, although that may struggle to strike a chord with Fifa. They have already hosted Fifa's inspection team and pointed out that during the visit they travelled 238 miles as opposed to the thousands of miles involved in assessing the Russian bid. Ruud Gullit offers a globally recognised presence as the bid's president and each country's government is a strong supporter – the Fifa inspectors met with both Prime Ministers. Other strengths include transport, they have done it together before – Euro 2000 – and much of the infrastructure is in place. The inspection went well, with praise for their preparations. "A World Cup in these countries would be an example to the world," said Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the head of the inspection team. Odds 10-1

United States

Fifa likes the US bid as it will make lots of money (as it did in 1994), but the US is not believed to be a serious player for 2018 – not least because the governing body has all but stated that the finals will go to Europe. Odds 12-1

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