Who’s the host with the most?

ONLY one thing is certain ahead of the World Cup host announcement which will be made in Zurich later today — no-one is certain what will happen.

Somewhere amid the politics, the controversy, the claims and counter-claims, a decision or two needs to be made.

By mid-afternoon today, the 22 men of FIFA’s executive committee must decide who will get the chance to host the greatest show on Earth in 2018 and 2022.

Never mind that the process is flawed, open to corruption and criticism in equal measure.

This is how it is, and nothing will change — for now at least.

Despite the constant criticism from Andrew Jennings, FIFA’s longest-standing critic and the man at the heart of Panorama’s controversial programme on BBC on Monday, the vote goes ahead.

Even Vladmir Putin has muscled in on the debate, telling the Russian parliament he will not travel to Zurich because he feels FIFA is being tarnished and the competition is “unscrupulous”.

Whether this will help or hinder Russia’s bid to host 2018 is a moot point. They have been strong favourites with most bookmakers and many pundits up to now, but Putin’s move may change that.

Is it an admission of defeat — because he would not want to come and finish on the losing side — or a masterstroke of mindgames, worthy of Alex Ferguson? Is he scuppering Russian hopes by staying away, or putting immense pressure on FIFA to be seen to rise above the controversy? No-one knows, and the pundits are divided. Even seasoned FIFA-watchers and those journalists who have been covering these events for 20 years or more are none the wiser.

It is like going into a general election without having canvassed opinion or conducting an exit poll. There are only 22 voters, the ballot is secret, and nobody ever knows how or why they voted the way they did, so how can anyone second-guess their intentions?

If Russia does suffer from Putin’s change of heart, it could play into English hands. Notwithstanding the fallout from The Sunday Times investigation, which caused two FIFA executive committee members to be suspended, and then Panorama’s accusations, England’s bid was considered to be close to Spain/Portugal in second place.

Will the English pick up votes from anyone who deserts the Russians? The bid has certainly been gathering momentum, helped enormously by the huge sprinkling of stardust that David Beckham, Prince William and David Cameron have brought this week. Sebastian Coe, who did so much to win the 2012 Olympics for London with the assistance of Beckham and Tony Blair in Singapore five years ago, is quietly confident that a similar effect can be achieved. Many ‘experts’ seem to believe the recent controversies will not have as much impact as more pragmatic issues — and in FIFA’s case, this usually means money.

No matter that Sepp Blatter loves the idea — and plaudits — for taking the World Cup into new parts of the world.

His reign saw the first Asian and African finals, it returns to Brazil after a 60-year absence in 2014, and he is thought to favour Russia. But there is a downside to such high-risk venues. Not so much in terms of infrastructure, with stadiums, roads, airports and hotels still to be built. But in terms of the commercial potential. England has the richest and most developed commercial market in football, not just in terms of sponsorship and media but also corporate hospitality.

South Africa was a disaster area for FIFA this summer, with tens of thousands of empty seats in the most expensive parts of the grounds because the prawn sandwich brigade did not fancy going so far. It may be the same for Russia, with similar problems of long-distance travel and lawlessness.

England can deliver guaranteed financial success for FIFA.

Of course Spain and Portugal have the potential to profit, but with the long-term economic health of those countries in such a parlous position, do they represent a risk? Most Latin voters will favour the Iberian bid, despite FIFA’s dislike of joint proposals, and the footballing case for the home of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Benfica is obvious. But there is a huge cost to getting stadiums up to scratch, and where is the money going to come from?

The last bidder, Holland and Belgium, could yet be the dark horses. Widely expected to go out in the first round of voting, assuming no country gets over 50% of the votes straightaway, they may yet emerge to take advantage of the controversy embroiling Russia, England and Spain/Portugal. They may not be the first choice of many voters, but who is to say they will not pick up friends as others drop out?

The truth is no-one can say with any confidence who will win. When the announcement is made, England could be first or last, as could any of the four. And don’t even start trying to choose between the candidates for 2022. America, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Qatar have all been making their cases.

Who will win? All will be revealed.

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