Lobbying intensifies as D-Day nears

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ZURICH, December 1 – The scandal-tainted race for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups enters the home straight here Wednesday as rival bids make formal presentations to voters with the crucial ballot just over 24 hours away.The five countries battling for the right to host the 2022 football extravaganza — Australia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Qatar — will showcase their bids in presentations made at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

While the 2022 bidders prepare to make their final pitches, high-powered delegations from the countries slugging it out for the 2018 tournament will be engaging in frenzied last-minute lobbying.

Russia has emerged as the bookmakers favourite in the final days before the Thursday’s vote, pulling clear of England and a joint bid from Spain and Portugal. A Dutch-Belgian bid is regarded as a long-odds outsider.

England have travelled to Zurich with a heavyweight delegation led by Prime Minister David Cameron, heir to the throne Prince William and football icon David Beckham.

But English hopes have been rocked by a series of media reports alleging corruption within FIFA which are expected to trigger a backlash among the 22 FIFA executive committee members who will decide the vote.

A Sunday Times investigation in October 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 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.

Beckham said the British media coverage of FIFA had been discussed in a meeting with the football body’s President Sepp Blatter on Tuesday which also included Cameron and other bid leaders.

"What we made clear to him, and what he already knows, is that if we get the World Cup in 2018 our media are right behind us, our media are so positive towards the sport and towards it growing in our country," Beckham said.

While England’s last-ditch lobbying effort is being spearheaded by Cameron, it remained unclear whether Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would arrive in Zurich for the final hours of campaigning.

A spokesman for Putin in Moscow said Tuesday the Russian leader had a busy domestic agenda but did not categorically rule out a trip to Switzerland.

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 side by side — designed to maximise television revenues — was a mistake, making collusion between bidders inevitable.

Spain and Qatar are widely reported to have struck a deal aimed at securing votes in the 2018 and 2022 races, in breach of FIFA rules, although both sides have denied any such agreement.

While Russia has emerged as the narrow favourite in the 2018 race, the 2022 ballot has been harder to read, where the United States, Australia, and Qatar are the front-runners ahead of Japan and South Korea.

Most observers believe a victory for either Japan or South Korea is highly unlikely given the countries hosted the event relatively recently in 2002.

The favourites are believed to be the United States and Australia, with Qatar emerging as a genuine threat.

The searing desert heat of a Qatari summer would appear to be an insurmountable obstacle to a World Cup taking place in the Gulf state.

However Qatar’s futuristic bid — it plans to build nine climate controlled stadiums to offset the heat — has won many admirers including French legend Zinedine Zidane, who has voiced his support for the Qatari campaign.

If Qatar is deemed too risky however it may come down to a shoot-out between Australia and the United States, with the Americans marginal favourites owing to time zones which offer greater scope for maximising revenues from the sale of television broadcast rights.

The United States campaign was buoyed by the emergence on Tuesday of a report from management consultants McKinsey, which gave their campaign a 100 percent rating for likely revenues.

The study assessed each bid in five key revenue areas: ticketing, TV and media rights, sponsorship, hospitality, and merchandising.

While the United States came out on top, the Australia bid was ranked last out of the 2022 contenders with 68 percent.

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