All eyes on Zurich

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ZURICH, December 1- The frenzied race for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups entered the home straight here Wednesday as rival bids prepared to make final presentations on the eve of the scandal-tainted vote.The five countries battling for the 2022 football extravaganza – Australia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Qatar – were to showcase their bids in 30-minute pitches to voters at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

High-powered delegations from the countries slugging it out for the 2018 tournament meanwhile were engaging in frantic last-ditch lobbying before making their own presentations on Thursday.

Russia has emerged as the bookmakers’ favourite in the final days before the vote, pulling clear of England and a joint bid from Spain and Portugal. A Dutch-Belgian bid is regarded as a long-odds outsider. Facts: World Cup 2018 and 2022 bidders

However, England are pulling out all the stops with Prime Minister David Cameron, heir to the throne Prince William and football icon David Beckham networking relentlessly with FIFA delegates.

Cameron met FIFA President Sepp Blatter on Tuesday before holding talks late into the night with five other members of the 22-strong executive committee which will vote in Thursday’s ballot.

The British leader later flew back to London from Zurich to participate in Prime Minister’s questions in parliament but was due to jet back to Switzerland later Wednesday to resume campaigning.

"I know that many people will ask, well, are you spending too much time on something that might not succeed? And I would say if you don’t get onto the pitch you’ve got no chance of winning," Cameron told lawmakers in London.

Beckham meanwhile told a press conference on Wednesday that he had faith in FIFA voters to judge each bid on its merits. Focus: Beckham wows and woos in World Cup bid

"I think we can trust every one of the members," he said. "At the end of the day they’re football people. They’re going to want a World Cup in the best country that they think could host the biggest sporting event in the world.

English hopes have been rocked by several media reports alleging corruption within FIFA which could trigger a backlash among voters.

A Sunday Times investigation snared two FIFA members apparently offering to sell their votes in exchange for cash. Both officials were later suspended by FIFA and will not take part in the vote.

On Monday, BBC documentary Panorama accused three more FIFA executive committee members of involvement in a decade-old corruption scandal.

A fourth FIFA member, Trinidadian official Jack Warner, seen as a key figure for English hopes, was accused by the programme of trying to sell World Cup tickets on the black market. Focus: FIFA executives accused in BBC documentary

While England’s lobbying effort is being spearheaded by Cameron, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confirmed Wednesday he would not be in Zurich.

"I would love to represent our entry in person," the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Putin as saying.

"However, under these circumstances, I think it would be best not to go out of respect for the members of the FIFA executive committee, so that they could make their decision in peace and without any outside pressure," he added. Related article: Putin denounces anti-FIFA ‘smears’

FIFA’s executive committee will cast votes in a series of ballots starting at 2:00 pm local time Thursday (1300 GMT) until one bid has received an absolute majority.

Blatter has admitted that the decision to stage the votes for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments at the same time was a mistake, raising the probability of collusion between bidders.

The United States delegation in Zurich is being led by former President Bill Clinton with Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman also part of the team.

Australian hopes of victory suffered a setback Tuesday when it was confirmed that the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) would not be represented at the vote because its president refused to drop his appeal against suspension.

OFC chief Reynald Temarii, one of the two FIFA executives suspended after the Sunday Times corruption investigation, said he planned to press on with attempts to overturn his ban.

The move is a blow to Australia’s chances of success, as the OFC had pledged to support Football Federation Australia’s bid.

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