Imagine the scene. The camera pans over the Royal Box at Wembley stadium in June 2018, past King William V, Lord Ferguson (the only sitting peer to have won 15 Premier League titles), Sir David Beckham (99 caps for England), Nicky Blair MP (Con, Hitchin and Harpenden) and Tottenham supremo Juande Ramos (what a choice he turned out to be). If the World Cup finals do come to England in 11 years' time they will be the hot ticket – but what state will English football be in?
The stadiums are built, the transport works (unless you're talking about the North Circular) and the supporters are there to fill the grounds of every game from Brazil versus Germany to Lesotho against French Guiana. Instead, when the Football Association's bid for the 2018 World Cup finals was officially announced yesterday, the instinctive response of anyone who cares about English football is to ask whether a host nation currently failing to qualify for Euro 2008 will have a team to match up to the occasion.
The FA will have learned from the doomed bidding process for the 2006 finals which was possibly the most humiliating diplomatic defeat to Germany since Neville Chamberlain's best efforts. This time the FA will go into the battle with the rest of the Uefa votes already in the bank and will not undermine people like Sir Bobby Charlton by associating them with an unwinnable bid. And if the opposition are to be America, Australia and China, then the men from Soho Square will have to be good.
No sooner have they got the Burns Report past the greybeards of the FA Council and opened the doors of Wembley Stadium than another enormous task is thrown the way of the governing body's executive. For those who like their sport pure it is as well to look away now as the electioneering starts. Realpolitik will take over and those lucky, lucky African nations who have their federation's votes for 2018 can expect FA investment, high-profile English visitors and as many autographed England football shirts as they can shake a ballot paper at.
It is ever thus in the politics of sport. The FA has trained the coaches for the next generation with the help of McDonald's, a company whose produce is not exactly synonymous with athletic excellence. Its latest scheme is with a different sponsor, Tesco, to coach children between the ages of five and 11, now identified as a crucial age to develop the talents of potential professional footballers. That one, which hopes to touch the lives of more than one million kids, is the clincher – even if just one in a million is the prodigy who makes the 2018 squad.
The best thing that a 2018 World Cup bid could achieve – and bear in mind that Fifa's decision will be made in four years' time – would be to focus minds on how England produces great footballers. That will entail a frank, if painful, debate on the effect of foreign players and how they are stunting the development of home talent. That topic is set to be of huge import in the next few months with a major study on the way.
It will also shape the way we handle our young prodigies. This week saw the debut of 15-year-old John Bostock, the Crystal Palace kid who has been the young star of English football for the last two years. Very soon Bostock will be able to choose an agent, in little more than a year he will be able to buy his first flash car. He may even be at Chelsea or Manchester United by then if Palace decide to cash in on a kid worth at least £2m already.
By 2018 Bostock will be 26 and in his prime and we can only hope that he is still the balanced, committed individual everyone says he is now. English football is awash with money, it is one of the country's most successful cultural exports and thoroughly pleased with itself. Staging the World Cup finals would be a relative doddle; showing that England can still nurture and develop the talent that seems to come so easily to the African and South American nations less flush than us is the challenge.
Contenders: How the rivals will shape up
Seen by Fifa as having vast potential. Huge appetite for the game in Asia as shown by the success of the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea. Successful hosting of the recent Women's World Cup will work in their favour. Stadiums will need rebuilding.
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Have never hosted the tournament before and Fifa likes the idea of taking it to new areas. Successful bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics shows country's ambition, but bid may be hindered by the poor state of stadiums and sheer scale of the country.
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Said to be "exploring the logistics" of hosting the tournament. Highly successful 2000 Olympics and 2003 Rugby Union World Cup show the Aussies know how to put on a hell of a show.
Fifa may look to build on the David Beckham effect with the increased popularity of the game in America. Hosted the tournament in 1994 and have more than enough stadiums ready to host matches. Lack of home support may hinder bid.
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