World Cup bid team receives assurances over 'Panorama'

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The Independent Online

In Zurich this afternoon, England's bid team begins the final push to win round the 22 men who will decide the whereabouts of the 2018 World Cup Finals. Tonight, however, the focus switches back to these shores as the BBC airs the controversial Panorama programme that at worst threatens to damage irreparably English hopes.

Yesterday, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture and one of the 30-strong English contingent heading for Switzerland, claimed he had been assured by several members of Fifa, football's governing body, that they will not be influenced by the programme. But coming so soon before Thursday's decision day, it will not be well received, no matter the content, around the corridors of Fifa's modernist HQ.

Already seen to be lagging behind both the Russian and joint Spain/Portugal bids, England has ground to make up between now and the vote. Judged on bricks and mortar alone its bid is strong, but it has been battling to avoid becoming the victim of any fallout from the Sunday Times corruption allegations. Andy Anson, the bid chief executive, believes that a recent letter sent to the remaining 22 members of Fifa's executive committee, the men who will vote, has successfully distanced England from the actions of its media. Mr Hunt, having spoken to nearly half the delegates, believes they will also not be swayed by Panorama.

He told the BBC: "I hope that is the case. All the Fifa delegates I have spoken to have assured me that is the case. I am the secretary of state responsible for the media and I strongly defend the fact we have a free media that operate at arm's length to the Government. I did speak to one member of the Fifa ethics committee when I was in Kuala Lumpur and he said to me he recognised the Government had no control over the media in England – nor should it – and he was confident that wouldn't affect the England 2018 bid and I very much hope it is right.

"We are going into this week very upbeat. I really think we can win this. It is going to be very close and we have to work for every single vote."

England was yesterday given a potentially timely fillip by Mohamed bin Hammam, the influential head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). In another plot twist in what has become an increasingly furtive and murky affair, he denied ever having given an interview to a Spanish newspaper in which he promised the AFC members would vote en bloc for the Iberian bid.

Instead he said that all four of them would cast their votes as each sees fit, – making them much sought-after individuals between now and Thursday. England is hopeful that by using David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham as high-profile flag-wavers in Zurich they can win round the waverers.

There may even be an extra voter to impress after reports last night that the Oceania confederation, whose president, Reynald Temarii, was suspended over the Sunday Times allegations, may have that vote restored, making it a 23-man panel.

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