Sailing: Swiss head for historic win as Kiwis take last gamble

<i>America's Cup</i> Europeans start campaign to stage next contest as former New Zealand skipper steers Alinghi towards remarkable victory
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On opposite sides of the globe, the rugby fans of Europe wake up today to the second weekend of the Six Nations and, in the southern hemisphere, the opening matches of the Super 12. But in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and especially Switzerland, along with half the New Zealand nation, other eyes will be on the fate of sailing's most famous contest, the America's Cup. Will it will stay in the land of the long white cloud, or, for the first time, go to Europe?

The contest is not over yet, but the Kiwis, the world's modern argonauts, are being pummelled by Switzerland, that little land-locked country at the heart of Europe. Team New Zealand were clear favourites to defend their crown successfully, but were 3-0 down to the Swiss syndicate Alinghi as they prepared for last night's fourth race in a best-of-nine series.

If the Swiss challengers win, it will be one of the biggest upsets ever in this historic event and will have huge implications for the sport. The winners get to stage their subsequent defence of the trophy and the scramble to host the contest in big, brash, rich Europe has already begun. For the moment, however, the focus is on the current bitter battle for the 151-year-old trophy.

There are two Swiss crew on Alinghi plus Jochen Schümann, who emerged from East Germany and won a silver and three gold Olympic medals. And then there are half a dozen Kiwis. The locals have always been afraid of what Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, who defected with their closest team-mates at the end of the 2000 Cup defence, could do to them. Poster campaigns and hate-fuelled radio programmes revealed just how rattled they were and just how little faith they had in the generation taking over. Now they are standing with their heads bent far back, looking at a mountain to climb that is as steep as the Matterhorn.

TNZ put all their faith in a design innovation that had been considered by others but rejected because they thought it would be both illegal and too difficult to engineer. The Kiwis swung it past the official measurer, cracked the engineering problem, and gave birth to what they call the "hula", a hull appendage that increases power through extra length and, because it evades the measurement rule, also gives them extra sail area.

The experts were sold, the public was sold, and it looks as if the sailing team was sold. Nearly everybody thought it would be the sort of gamebreaker that would give them a third 5-0 blackwash. Nearly everybody was wrong.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures and TNZ have brought in their tune-up helmsman, Bertrand Pace. If this sounds like the switching of talent between New Zealand Europe just because an America's Cup skipper cannot secure the deal he wants, then it is. But, while New Zealanders foam at the mouth when it comes to people they want to brand as traitors and mercenaries, it is all OK when it is in the name of the cause. And where the notion of loyalty has sprouted flags, banners and fascist-style television adverts, it is OK to dump a member of the team who has stuck with it through thick and thin. Sorry, Hamish Pepper, your skills as a tactician are no longer needed.

If Coutts' successor, Dean Barker, can first steady the ship and then go for the kill he could become more famous than Mel Gibson and El Cid combined. His first task is to be as clever as his opponents when it comes to tuning the boat to its maximum potential. His second is to be as clever as his opponents.

The panel of international pundits is already looking to a very different future. For New Zealand, the America's Cup rapidly turned from being a great sporting triumph to a cash cow. Most of it has stayed in Auckland, though there has been some trickle-down of tourists to other areas. For the man who is poised to take it away from them, Ernesto Bertarelli, there is no such venal imperative. The Swiss billionaire, who got his taste for international racing as an amateur sailor on his country's lakes, is not the man who will bring economic regeneration to his homeland because he will not be staging any defence there.

It is estimated that this America's Cup has been worth nearly $400m (£250m) to the local economy here. When the contest goes to Europe you can double that figure, which explains why the campaign to win Bertarelli's vote as hosts has already begun.

Bertarelli, who is reckoned to be worth anything up to $4bn through his half-ownership of the Swiss-based pharmaceuticals company Serono, says he wants to make good racing conditions the priority when he comes to pick the venue for the next America's Cup, which is likely to be staged in 2007. This – not to mention the economic reasons – rules out any chance of the contest coming to Britain

The mayor of Sete in southern France, a petroleum mogul from Portugal, and even the king of Spain have all been quoted as wanting to woo him and so see the next Cup staged in their countries. The two front runners have been Mallorca and, just north of Lisbon, Cascais. But, as well as Sete, to the west of Marseille, there is La Ciotat, to its east, desiring the sort of boost to infrastructure which the Cup would build.

Unfortunately, the south of France is a nightmare in the summer, Mallorca is already similarly crowded, and Cascais would need to demonstrate some very clever footwork when trying to raid EC coffers.

So, the future is wide open as far as venue is concerned and Bertarelli's Alinghi syndicate may take up to nine months to make up its mind.

What is clearer is that the sort of nationality rules which the Kiwis may even tighten would be swept away. Anyone could work and sail for anybody. There are plans for a road show of events leading up to the Cup, which could be in Europe, the United States, even Australasia, and would be compulsory as part of a qualification process.

And it would be a lot more expensive. This time the big players have been spending about $100m. But European property values are far higher, European living expenses are far higher, and the cost of securing the best sailors could skyrocket, but, if you have to ask the price, you probably cannot afford the America's Cup.