The Prime Minister, David Cameron, will attempt to salvage England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup finals today when he meets Jack Warner, the Fifa official who is crucial to the success of the campaign and was last night at the centre of allegations by the controversial BBC Panorama investigation.
Cameron will meet Warner, one of the Fifa executive committee (ExCo) who will vote on 2018 on Thursday, here today, with those close to the talks even suggesting that both men will dispense with aides to speak face to face behind closed doors.
Warner, a Trinidad government minister, controls the three votes of the Concacaf region – covering North and Central America and the Caribbean – and is crucial to England's chances of success. If he decides to abandon England after three years of assiduous courting by the English bid team, then they face the possibility that other backers could melt away too, leaving the bid stranded and potentially humiliated.
It is a sign of how crucial Warner is to English hopes that he will be the principal target for England's final push in the lobbying before Thursday, with Cameron and David Beckham arriving in Switzerland today – and Prince William tomorrow – for one last push to shore up their votes.
Panorama alleged that Warner attempted to order tickets worth $84,240 (£54,000) on behalf of touts for the 2010 World Cup held this summer but, according to Panorama, the alleged deal "fell through".
Reaction to Panorama late last night was universally dismissive. The Uefa president Michel Platini said that he did not expect the programme to have major implications for England's bid. "I don't think the programme will affect the decision. People have made their minds up a long time ago. This is not important."
The English bid team described it as an "embarrassment to the BBC". A spokesman for the 2018 bid said: "We stand by our previous position that the BBC's Panorama did nothing more than rake over a series of historical allegations, none of which are relevant to the current bidding process." The 2018 international president David Dein said: "In my opinion it should have been on the History Channel."
The 2018 chief executive, Andy Anson, said yesterday that he was too busy lobbying to watch the Panorama programme last night and would continue to "fight like crazy" to secure the votes that England needed.
However, in private, the 2018 team admit that they will only know the extent of the damage inflicted on their campaign by Panorama's revelations after the meetings with Warner today. A deeply controversial figure, Warner was sanctioned before by Fifa over ticket selling for the 2006 World Cup, but he is one of the world governing body's great survivors and remains a pivotal figure in Thursday's vote. The allegations against Warner are the same as those made against him in the Norwegian press, prompting further criticism of the BBC that its material is not new and the decision to broadcast so close to the vote was simply based on chasing ratings.
The England bid had some good news yesterday when a Fifa report into the potential of all bidders to deliver a profitable World Cup rated England as the highest likely earner in every major category. While bookmakers continue to make Russia the favourites to win the 2018 vote, with England third behind Spain-Portugal – and Australia the front-runners to win the 2022 tournament – both races remain too tight to call.
The tension has been exacerbated by the chaotic background to the vote. Even yesterday, Fifa had not yet announced whether there would be 22 or 23 voters on Thursday. The Oceania confederation has applied to have Reynald Temarii of Tahiti, one of two suspended ExCo members, replaced in time for Thursday, but he was yet formally to drop his appeal last night – which would pave the way for a proxy.
Panorama also alleged that three further ExCo members took bribes from the sports marketing company International Sports and Leisure (ISL), Fifa's erstwhile marketing partner, which collapsed in 2001. The programme named the men as Ricardo Teixeira, the head of Brazilian football; Issa Hayatou from Cameroon and Nicolas Leoz, the 82-year-old Paraguayan. The report alleged that all three names appear on a list of secret payments made between 1989 and 1999 that total around $100m.
Teixeira and Leoz, part of the three-vote bloc of Conmebol (South America's football federation), are committed to vote for Spain and would only potentially back England if Spain were eliminated in the earlier rounds. Dein recently returned from Paraguay, where he offered Leoz a friendly against England in return for his support in such a scenario.
Hayatou is thought to be in Russia's camp but he could yet be a target for England over the next three days. Anson said yesterday that England's bid "would be a lot stronger" were it not for Panorama and conceded that an attack on one ExCo member would have implications for the rest of them.
"The committee is a small group of 22 people," he said. "It's a brotherhood and if you hurt one of them, of course it affects the others."