England's chances of staging the 2006 World Cup have received a significant boost after it emerged that eight of the 24 voters who will decide the location could cast their votes as a block in England's favour.
Although a majority of the eight - the European members of the 24-man executive committee of Fifa, world football's governing body - are understood to have Germany as their first choice, the Football Association has been assured that the whole group will vote for England if Germany are eliminated in the early rounds of voting.
Such a scenario is quite feasible and picking up their votes could make all the difference to England's odds of hosting the tournament. Voting takes place in July, in up to four stages, with one of the five competing countries being eliminated each round until there is a majority winner with at least 13 votes.
South Africa have been, until now, thought to be the favourites to stage the event, with England and Germany just behind and the other contenders, Brazil and Morocco, realistically out of contention. The news that South Africa will get no second votes at all from Europe could be enough to swing the balance in England's favour. English bid sources feel they have five non-European votes almost secured.
The news that the European members of the Fifa committee could support England comes after a meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday between a heavyweight delegation from the FA and the presidential board of Uefa, European football's governing body. The English delegation included Adam Crozier, the FA's chief executive, Tony Banks, the Prime Minister's special envoy for the 2006 bid, Alec McGivan, the 2006 bid director, Geoff Thompson, the FA chairman, and Sir Bobby Charlton, the bid's main ambassador. The Uefa delegates were led by the Uefa president, Lennart Johansson.
The FA delegation had travelled to the meeting to seek assurances that Uefa would not be asking its eight Fifa members to vote as a block for Germany in the early rounds. Uefa assured the FA that the eight members would have a free vote.
The agreement to vote as a block for the longest-surviving European bidding nation followed. If England are eliminated early in the voting, all the Uefa votes will go to Germany.
Fifa, meanwhile, has warned that the Aston Villa striker Julian Joachim will be in "serious breach of regulations" if he plays for the Caribbean island of St Vincent in a World Cup qualifier tomorrow.
Joachim flew out early yesterday to prepare for his international debut against St Kitts even though he played nine times for the England Under-21 side in the early 1990s. That makes him ineligible for tomorrow's match.
Villa's manager, John Gregory, became aware of the situation yesterday after a call from the FA. He was unable to contact Joachim and was too late to stop him travelling - which means he will be out of Villa's match at Tottenham.
A Fifa spokesman, Keith Cooper, said: "The rules are clear-cut. As soon as a player plays one second of one minute for one country in an official competition, then they are committed to that country. It is that clear-cut.
"I saw Julian Joachim play for England in the World Youth Championships in Australia in 1993 and, if he does play on Sunday, then he will be in serious breach of the regulations.
"If that happens, the punishments can be against the player himself or the football federation concerned, in this case St Vincent."