South Africa faces tense wait for World Cup

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South Africa tonight emerged as slight favourites to win the race to stage the 2010 World Cup but face a nerve-racking contest against challengers Morocco in tomorrow's vote.

South Africa tonight emerged as slight favourites to win the race to stage the 2010 World Cup but face a nerve-racking contest against challengers Morocco in tomorrow's vote.

The two African countries ended a day of presentations to FIFA's executive committee with Morocco having gained some ground on their main rivals following Tunisia's decision to pull out of the running and back their fellow Arab state.

South Africa's bid still remains the most likely to succeed, if only by the narrowest of margins, and their best hope lies in winning an outright majority among FIFA's 24 executive committee members in the first round of voting here in Zurich tomorrow at 11am BST.

Both countries assembled teams of famous faces to back their claims to stage 2010. South Africa's line-up was more impressive with Nelson Mandela, fellow Nobel peace prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu and F. W. de Klerk here in Zurich along with current president Thabo Mbeki.

Morocco had to make do with foreigners - Spain's former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade - plus statements of support from Real Madrid stars Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo.

South Africa, at one stage runaway favourites to stage the tournament, do fear a late challenge by Morocco who have won important political support among FIFA's inner circle.

They lost the race for 2006 in heart-breaking circumstances, by just one vote to Germany. The 2010 vote is also too close to call - one senior FIFA official told the Press Association he predicts a 13-11 victory for Morocco while an executive committee member makes South Africa the victors by the same margin.

What no one disputes is that this is a two-horse race; the other two runners, Egypt and Libya, are so far behind that it will be a surprise if they muster more than a single vote between them.

South Africa have the edge in that the report by FIFA's technical inspectors rated their bid as the best overall. They are although thought to have the backing of FIFA president Sepp Blatter whose influence over executive committee members is stronger than ever.

Morocco though have won admirers from Asian members of the committee and from Michel Platini of France and Spain's Angel Villar Llona. Their bid is also backed by the hugely-wealthy Moroccan royal family - so much so in fact that the country's football association has had minimal involvement.

Whoever wins, FIFA will aim to take the credit for awarding the world's biggest sporting event to the world's poorest continent. Under their new rotation system, 2010 was always going to Africa and the World Cup will be staged in South America in 2014.

Danny Jordaan, South Africa's bid leader, believes their experience in staging the cricket and rugby world cups within the last decade should be a deciding factor.

He said: "If you look at event management expertise, no other country can compete with South Africa. We also have the number one ranking in the FIFA technical report.

"We have successfully staged 11 major events over the past decade, all of them safe and secure."

The South African bid have lined up big-name sponsors in the hope of persuading FIFA the tournament will be a commercial success, and is also emphasising that a World Cup would be the best way to finally bury the bitterness of the apartheid years.

Mandela told FIFA members: "When we were on Robben Island the only way we could follow the FIFA World Cup was on the radio. As football generated hope on Robben Island so hosting this World Cup will give a certain meaning to this hope."

Morocco have hired Alan Rothenberg, the man who headed the 1994 World Cup in the USA and the 2006 FIFA inspection team, as a consultant and have spent hugely on their campaign.

Rothenberg is confident of victory, saying: "I honestly believe we can get the 13 votes we need and we could even get up to 15."

Both South Africa and Morocco have tried to shake off negative aspects of the bid. Morocco have been emphasising their low crime rate - in contrast to South Africa's notoriously high one - but have had to deal with worries about terrorism following the involvement of Moroccan nationals in the Madrid bombings and attacks in Casablanca.

Morocco's bid president Saad Kettani said in their presentation: "It will be an extraordinary celebration, a World Cup without risks. Morocco does not joke with security."

Lobbying and deal-making will continue up until the last moments as the bidders attempt to extract the maximum benefit from political manoeuvring.

Britain's FIFA vice-president David Will will vote for South Africa. He said: "I believe South Africa have the best bid but Morocco have gained ground considerably in recent months." Tunisia's FIFA executive committee member Slim Aloulou will now switch his support to Morocco.