England's 2006 bid goes into celebrity overdrive

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WHAT DO Hugh Grant, Chris de Burgh, Tony Blair, Prince Charles and an RAF helicopter pilot have in common?

WHAT DO Hugh Grant, Chris de Burgh, Tony Blair, Prince Charles and an RAF helicopter pilot have in common?

Over the next six days the actor, the singer, the Prime Minister, the heir to the throne and the serviceman will all be trotted out to try to secure the 2006 World Cup for England. A team of inspectors from Fifa, football's world governing body, arrives in the country this morning for a five-day tour of proposed facilities, and England's bid team are making every conceivable effort to impress them.

"The fact so many people from all walks of life, including the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, business leaders and stars from entertainment as well as sport are involved will, I am sure, make the right impression on the inspection team," Alec McGivan, England's 2006 campaign director, said.

The six-man Fifa team, which will be led by an American, Alan Rothenburg - who ran the 1994 World Cup - will include experts in security, communications, stadiums and marketing. They have spent the last five days in Germany, assessing that country's bid, and will travel to Brazil, Morocco and South Africa (the three other candidate countries) early next year to inspect facilities.

Once the team have completed their visits, they will compile reports on the readiness and potential of each of the candidates. Those reports will be considered by Fifa's 24-man executive committee, which will vote on the venue for 2006 in July next year.

South Africa, which has the influential backing of Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, is the favourite to win the event, with England and Germany both considered strong rivals. Although the English bid has attracted some criticism for its aggressive marketing techniques, it has been nothing if not ambitious.

The Fifa delegation's tour starts today with a trip to the Football Association's headquarters at Lancaster Gate. It will be followed by a meeting with the Prime Minister and an official government dinner hosted by the Minister for the Cabinet, Mo Mowlam.

The Prince of Wales will host a meeting tomorrow at St James' Palace, and later there will be a dinner with members of England's 1966 World Cup- winning side. Singing for England at the event will be De Burgh, the Irishman who is renowned for "Lady in Red".

If recent disciplinary form is anything to go by, the inspection team may get to see red on Saturday, when they take in Chelsea's home Premiership match with Arsenal.

The tour continues, around several of the proposed World Cup stadia - including Villa Park, Pride Park, the Stadium of Light, Anfield and Old Trafford - on Sunday and Monday. The delegates will be flown around by RAF aircraft and helicopters.

The visit culminates with a farewell gala dinner at Hampton Court Palace in London, which Grant will attend.

"I have no doubts England will pass the inspection visits," McGivan said. "However, these six days are not just about matching expectations, but exceeding them.

"We have to show Alan Rothenburg and his team just how much commitment there is in England to make the 2006 World Cup the best ever.

"We have always said our bid is not just an FA bid, but a national bid."