England's hopes of staging the 2018 World Cup have suffered a double blow following a week of intensive lobbying in Fifa's backyard designed to have exactly the opposite effect.
The Independent on Sunday has learned that Spain and Portugal, one of England's two main rivals and currently under investigation by Fifa's ethics committee for alleged vote-trading with Qatar, are almost certain to be exonerated.
The alleged deal was not even discussed at Fifa's executive committee meeting in Zurich on Friday, and it now seems inevitable that Spain and Portugal will be given the green light to carry on taking the fight to England when the ethics committee delivers their ruling on 17 November. "There is no other outcome," said one senior Fifa administrator.
The Spanish, conspicuous by their absence in Zurich, have already hit back, accusing England of doing their own deal with the United States, in breach of Fifa regulations. Miguel Angel Lopez, chief executive of the Iberian bid, cited comments from the England 2018 international president David Dein, who predicted – more than two weeks before it happened – that the US would pull out of the 2018 race to concentrate on 2022. "This gentleman must be telepathic or a prophet," Lopez said. "That isn't an agreement? When I see this I have to have suspicions."
However, Dein was only repeating an open secret, so Lopez's accusation has little basis in fact. But it has turned up the heat in the final few weeks of lobbying. The lips of Dein and his trusted companion Andy Anson, the England bid chief, were firmly sealed as they tirelessly worked the swish Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich during a week of trademark schmoozing. While it is hard to draw conclusions about how many, if any, votes might have been sealed by the pair, there was certainly a clear sense of camaraderie with their US colleagues.
The Independent on Sunday has also learned the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin is still being lined up to make the final presentation before Fifa's executive committee on 2 December despite reports that he was lukewarm about flying to Zurich.
Russia have won the timetable lottery by being drawn last among all nine bidders staking their claim to be World Cups hosts, their 30-minute presentation to Fifa's voting members – straight after England's – ideally positioned to retain most impact.
Russian bid officials are confident Putin will make the key address that could pip England to the post. The Russian bid chief Alexei Sorokin has insisted all along that he considers Putin's status and charisma to be just as telling as it was when Sochi upset the odds and won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
England's cause has been further harmed by a growing sense of unease among Fifa's voting members regarding elements of their bid strategy. The undignified verbal spat with Russia and the official protest made against Sorokin are considered unsportsmanlike and could end up backfiring. Fifa members have noted how the Russian bid team stayed silent following the resignation in May of former FA chairman Lord Triesman.
There are also growing fears that many Exco members could vote against England simply because of media intrusion. The revelations about bribery and corruption have led to two Fifa members being provisionally suspended, but a stony-faced Fifa president Sepp Blatter was clearly riled on Friday when he accused The Sunday Times of entrapment.
"Who is benefiting from this situation and who is being harmed?" asked an angry Blatter. "We are asking ourselves why did it happen and why did it happen specifically by English journalists? We are looking at that."
Deflecting attention away in this manner is a classic Blatter ploy but he is clearly feeling the pressure. Although Fifa have decided to preserve the status quo and hold the ballots for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups at the same time, Blatter stunned everyone by admitting that in hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.
Blatter, 74, is up for re-election next May but the gaffe of the double vote could come back to haunt him if a prospective opponent decides to seize the initiative by standing against him.Reuse content