As Fifa's World Cup inspection team began a four-day tour in London yesterday by visiting 10 Downing Street and Wembley Stadium, Sepp Blatter, the world governing body's president, appeared to confirm that England and Russia were the front-runners for the 2018 tournament.
Although Blatter has a reputation for talking up the credentials of whichever country he happens to find himself in, he was speaking on neutral territory in Singapore when he said: "The easiest way to organise the World Cup is to go to England. Everything is there – fans, stadiums, infrastructure.."
As if to emphasise that Fifa will not necessarily take the "easy" route, however, Blatter also made a strong case for Russia, which has already been chosen to stage the Winter Olympics and World Student Games in the next few years. "You cannot deny Russia if they bid for something. They are more than a country. They are a big continent, a big power."
Even assuming he meant "ignore" rather than "deny", Russia's potential is clear and bookmakers rate them as second favourites behind England, ahead of the joint bids from Spain- Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands. Last week the six-man Fifa delegation, in the process of visiting every bidding country, was in Russia, where they were received by the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, but gave a warning that work needed to start immediately on the many new stadiums planned.
Backers of the England bid are therefore making much of the existing facilities and infrastructure here, frequently making the exaggerated claim that the tournament could be staged "tomorrow". But there are more grounds of the required standard and capacity than in any of the other bidding countries, and the Fifa delegates are being shown six of them. Yesterday they went to Wembley (by Underground), meeting the England manager, Fabio Capello; today they will see the Emirates Stadium and later in the week the Newcastle United and Sunderland grounds, followed by Old Trafford and the City of Manchester Stadium.
Although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is on holiday, the bid team say he spoke to Blatter shortly after taking office and will be "intimately involved" in the 100 days before Fifa's executive committee decide on the hosts for 2018 and 2022. That involvement is expected to include travelling to Zurich before the vote on 2 December. Yesterday, the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, assured the visiting delegation – none of whom have a vote, although they will present a report to the 24 committee members who do – that the coalition government was just as supportive of England's bid as the Labour administration had been. "The commitment and guarantees provided by the previous government are ones we back 100 per cent," he said.
Andy Anson, the bid team's chief executive, boldly promised "the most spectacular and successful World Cup ever". At a time when black players are still being barracked in many eastern European countries – Rabotnicki of Macedonia were fined after their supporters did so against Liverpool this month – Anson was also careful to stress the cultural diversity of English football and, in a dig at the Russians, to emphasise how delegates could see "existing facilities ... with your own eyes, not just in your imagination."
England 2018, aware of how arrogant and self-centred the failed bid for the 2006 tournament was perceived to be, have also stressed throughout their campaign that a financially successful World Cup would help the Football Association extend its impressive missionary work across the world.
The grounds that need to be built...
Even if Spurs' new stadium, behind White Hart Lane, is completed for the start of the 2014-15 season – which is the earliest possibility – there is no guarantee it will be chosen. A choice will be made between the new ground, costing roughly £400m, and the Olympic Stadium, which West Ham could be using by then.
As the largest city never to have seen Premier League football, Bristol has gone for a new stadium rather than attempting to develop Ashton Gate. The Ashton Vale venue, for which planning permission was received earlier this year, will hold 44,000 and be home to Bristol City – though not, it is anticipated, their bitter rivals Bristol Rovers.
The City Ground may have been used in 1996 but Nottingham is prepared to build a new one, possibly named after Brian Clough, just outside the city. It would be used as the home of the England women's team. Planning permission has not yet been granted but completion is envisaged for 2016.
...and the stadiums that must be extended
Stadium:mk (Milton Keynes)
The host city that is not a city – the new town of Milton Keynes has applied twice for that status and been turned down. Chosen for its central location, the ground has successfully staged England Under-21 internationals and will effectively double its capacity to 44,000 by adding extra tiers on to existing stands.
Elland Road (Leeds)
With a current capacity just above the Fifa minimum for staging group matches of 40,000 (it rises to 60,000 for the quarter-finals and beyond), Leeds United's ground, used at Euro '96, does not need major work. Further seating will, however, be required, once part of the main stand has been set aside for sponsors and the media.
Home Park (Plymouth)
Spreading the geographical net wider than in either 1966 or 1996 has offered the West Country a second venue, as long as major improvements take place at Plymouth Argyle's ground (currently holding 19,500). Plans for a £150m redevelopment were unveiled last week to take the capacity to 44,000.
The 1966 World Cup stadium and traditional FA Cup semi-final venue will require a £22m redevelopment, increasing the capacity from 39,000 to 45,000. The Kop and West Stand will receive a new roof structure and the North Stand will be extended to create 17 executive boxes and an education facility.
Uncertainty over new ownership is affecting Merseyside's representation for 2018. New owners – if any ever emerge – would be expected to commit to building a new stadium in Stanley Park. If not, Anfield, a venue for Euro '96, which already has a capacity over 40,000, would need minor renovations.