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‘Europe only’ bids for 2018 ‘may disadvantage England’

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By Nick Harris

26 January 2010

The revelation last night by Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, that bidding to host the 2018 World Cup could be restricted to candidates from Europe won’t necessarily increase England’s chances of staging the tournament. In those circumstances, eight key Fifa voters within Europe would get a “free hand” where to cast their ballots and face no pressure to rally behind one Uefa bidder, sportingintelligence has learned.

On a trip to Madrid on Monday, Blatter said he had been discussing a deal with the Uefa president, Michel Platini, whereby a European nation would be guaranteed the 2018 event, and a non-European nation would get 2022. As things stand, there are four European bidders for both tournaments – England, Russia, Portugal & Spain jointly, plus Belgium & The Netherlands jointly – while Australia, Japan and the USA are also bidding for both 2018 and 2022. Indonesia, South Korea and Qatar are bidding only for 2022.

Blatter said: “There is a movement at the moment among the various candidates that in the end it would be a good solution … if the candidates for 2018 would only be those from Europe. It’s not been finally decided but it’s the idea, also to make the work of Fifa easier and especially that of the executive committee. It would also possibly make the work of the different organisations applying for the World Cup easier.”

Fifa’s 24-man executive committee will vote on the 2018 and 2022 hosts at a meeting in Zurich on 2 December after the conclusion of a lengthy process that involves official bid submissions in May and evaluation visits afterwards. The voting procedure is highly political and often strategic. Eight of the 24 voters come from with the Uefa region, and incidentally four of those eight come from the four European bidding nations. Africa has four votes, as does Asia, Concacaf has three, as does Conmebol, while Oceania and Blatter have one each.

It has been assumed by some that if Blatter’s mooted plan of making 2018 a “Europe only” race comes to fruition, then England will be even more strongly placed to come out on top, ahead of Russia, Portugal-Spain and Belgium-Netherlands. There is some logic to believing that may be the case: England’s bid will be technically strong, Spain had the World Cup as recently as 1982, the Low Countries shared a major tournament in 2000, and Russia – the wild card European candidate – is an unknown quantity in some respects. And any race shorn of two strong candidates like the USA and Australia must be more winnable, logically. Mustn’t it?

If the 2018 race remains “open”, England’s bid stands a good chance, according to sources, of receiving influential support from within the corridors of Uefa to be the “Europe candidate” against the rest of the world. That means that as and when other European nations were knocked out of the bidding, they would rally behind one candidate – quite probably England – in later rounds. With this block of European support, the chances of that nation winning are increased. (A little more detail on the logic of this argument can be found in our ongoing ‘Forum’ debate on the subject.)

If the 2018 race becomes “Europe only”, then, as one source put it, “all bets within Europe are off”. Platini would be assured already of the European tournament he craves, and have no need or desire to “whip” European candidates behind one “chosen” bid to increase the chances of a European event as opposed to a non-European event. England would not have “whip” backing. Nor would a Uefa alliance looking to do deals around the 2022 vote in exchange for support for 2018 be as strong if some of Uefa’s members were fighting tooth and nail among themselves for 2018, with no policy of “backing the chosen candidate” as they respectively fell.

Whether Blatter actually makes 2018 “Europe only” remains to be seen. Uefa officials at the highest level have no idea, yet, whether the Fifa president is seriously considering this option or not. Blatter is famously not constrained by any fixed bidding rules; he can effectively make them up as he goes along. Fifa’s ExCo members will almost certainly adhere to whatever he tells them, not that they have been consulted officially on this issue yet.

Blatter is also well known for changing his mind often. In the past he has voiced doubts over the attractiveness of joint bids but said on Monday: “History has shown that at the European Championships of 2000 (Belgium-Netherlands) and 2008 (Austria-Switzerland) that joint organization can be a great success.”

The ramifications for the rest of the bidders if 2018 became ‘Europe only’ are intriguing. Would the USA, Australia and Japan, for example, have legal grounds to sue Fifa for cash already spent targeting 2018? (Lawyers with a view, please email us).  The 2022 bid process would become, one assumes, a straight fight between the USA and Australia with Qatar a maverick on the margins with a wheelbarrow of financial backing to tip into the equation. If federation-level deals for 2018-2022 “swaps” have been muddied by a ” Europe only” 2018, then the USA might well have the upper hand in 2022. As one influential figure confided today: “You’d think South America would go for North America over Australia, and most of Europe too, if only for proximity and convenience . That’s a big head start.”

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