Thursday, December 2, 2010

The only men who matter

World Cup.2018 World Cup Decision - Zurich

Hours of debate and acres of column inches have been expended debating the pluses and minuses of the various 2018 World Cup bids, and the FIFA Executive Committee have their exhaustive technical study to go on (which rated England and Spain/Portugal as the safest bets) as well as the McKinsey report (which claimed the English bid would be the most lucrative).

Recent news has hurt several bids - the military exchanges between the two Koreas, the looming financial crises in Portugal and Spain, the Wikileaks diplomatic assessment of Russia as a gangster state and the pitch invasion at the Birmingham derby in England. Only
the low countries' bid seems to have avoided the bad headlines, but it has missed the good ones too. The Dutch government's reluctance to turn the tournament into a tax haven for the tournament and bankroll FIFA to the tune of 300 million Euros probably dealt their bid the coup de grace.

Yet at the end of the day, the two-year lobbying process, which has become frenzied in Switzerland as the hours count down to the vote, tell the true tale about how World Cup hostings are decided - by forming alliances. With 22 different nationalities on the Executive Committee, international networking is a must.

According to all accounts, the low-key Spain/Portugal bid has been the most successful in making friends, despite a budget one third of England's or Russia's. The Iberians appear not only to have worked their cultural heritage in bagging the three South American votes
on offer, but also struck a potentially winning alliance with Mohamed Bin-Hammam of Qatar, whose influence is believed to extend to two further members. England's repeated courting of Jack Warner seems to have translated into an understanding that CONCACAF's three votes will support them, although Rafael Salguero of Guatemala may be tempted to join his Hispanic brothers.

Cultural heritage is clearly a factor, which means not only the North and South American votes will head back to their ancestral homelands but also that the Egyptian delegate Hany Abo Rida is more likely to follow Mohamed Bin Hammam from the Asian confederation than vote with other (sub-Sa
haran) Africans. If Korean Chung Mong-Joon plumps as expected for the Dutch/Belgian bid, it will partly be down to his federation has hired four Dutch coaches in the last ten years.

Personal friendships and sentimental reasons will be factors too, as well as old sores and prejudices. Predicting the outright winner is only an approximate exercise given the voting format where the lowest-scoring bid's votes will be allocated elsewhere with each successive round until one nation has an overall majority. And who knows, one or two wavering candidates may even change their mind between rounds in the anonymous ballot boxes.

If England and the Iberians have say seven votes apiece to begin with, that still leaves six second preferences to swing it either way. All that does seem sure
going into the final day is that the Dutch & Belgians have no hope of winning and that Spain & Portugal have a slender lead over England, who are narrowly ahead of Russia. Vladimir Putin's last-minute decision not to fly to Zurich while Prince William and David Cameron press the flesh sounds like an admission of defeat. Iberia is the favourite for now, but Angel Maria Villa Llona's boast that "all the fish is sold" a week ago may come back to haunt him if England turn an ear or two at the last minute.

Predictions are inevitably risky given the difficulty in reading the minds of 22 diverse men and the secret nature of the ballot renders prognostications doubly moot, but these nevertheless are mine:

2018 decision - possible first round voting intentions

Spain/Portugal
Julio Grondona (Argentina)
Angel Maria Villa Llona (Spain)
Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay)
Ricardo Texeira (Brazil)
Mohamed Bin Hammam (Qatar)
Worawi Makudi (Thailand)
Hany Abo Rida (Egypt)

England
Geoff Thompson (England)
Jack Warner (Trinidad & Tobago)
Chuck Blazer (USA)
Senes Erzik (Turkey)
Junji Ogura (Japan)
Rafael Salguero (Guatemala)

Russia
Sepp Blatter (Switzerland)
Franz Beckenbauer (Germany)
Vitaly Mutko (Russia)
Marios Lefkaritis (Cyprus)
Jacques Anouma (Ivory Coast)
Issa Hayatou (Cameroon)

Holland/Belgium
Michel D'Hooge (Belgium)
Michel Platini (France)
Chung Mong-Joon (South Korea)

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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