England's hopes of hosting the 2018 tournament dim after press and TV reports on alleged scandals in football's governing body and squabbles with fellow bidder Russia.
No sure bet as Fifa World Cup announcement nears
LONDON // Against a backdrop of bitter controversy, a countdown device on the website of football's world governing body shows seconds ticking away to an announcement on where the 2018 World Cup will take place.
Millions of football supporters are eagerly awaiting the outcome even though the contest has been marred by mudslinging and allegations of corruption.
On December 2, the answer will be known. The 24 members of the executive committee of the International Federation of Association Football (Fifa) will meet at their Zurich headquarters to vote on where the 2018 tournament should be staged: in Russia, England or a combination of Spain and Portugal, or Belgium and the Netherlands.
The committee's strength will be reduced to 22 if two members - Nigeria's Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti - are still, by that date, suspended pending an internal Fifa investigation into whether they sought money in return for supporting bids.
Although Russia and England were previously considered joint favourites for 2018, Fifa's dismay at the actions of the British newspaper The Sunday Times in exposing alleged misconduct, coupled with unseemly squabbling between the two countries, have strengthened the case for the joint Spanish-Portuguese bidders. The submission from Belgium and the Netherlands remains the unfancied runner.
No public mention of the contentious issues was made when the Fifa president Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, listed by Forbes as the 65th most powerful individual in the world, met David Cameron, the British prime minister, in London last month.
Mr Blatter spoke positively of England as the "motherland of football" and acknowledged the country's ability to stage the tournament for the first time since 1966, when the host nation also won its only World Cup final.
However, he also made clear that his visit was part of a round of meetings with the heads of state of all competing countries and gave no hint on how the vote would go.
More worrying for Mr Cameron and other supporters of the English cause, including Prince William, second in line to the throne, and David Beckham, the country's best known footballer, are signs of continuing anger within Fifa over the role of undercover journalists.
Mr Blatter has likened the methods used by The Sunday Times to entrapment and another member of the executive committee has gone even further.
"Forging identity, fabricating evidence and setting traps [are] unethical behaviour in my point of view," Mohammed bin Hammam, the Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation, said in comments on his own website that have been widely repeated.
"One thing about Middle East media, these are rare happenings there. Is it ethical to use unethical measures to protect the ethic? How can we serve justice and look for fairness by not acting justly and fairly? How will we clean dirty laundry by using dirty water?"
ILest those words seem to reflect no more than a clash of cultures, it is worth considering the reaction of many English football supporters.
Of more than 220 comments posted to a blog discussion by the BBC's sports editor David Bond, many are scathing of press activity. "The problem is simply that the British media has forgotten what patriotism and pride in country are all about," one contributor protested. "They don't care if England loses out on hosting the World Cup so long as their slimy, underhand muckraking sells papers."
The Sunday Times report claimed the Nigerian Fifa representative, Mr Adamu, offered reporters posing as American businessmen his vote for the US bid in exchange for money for new stadiums. The US, which was entirely uninvolved in the episode, has decided in any case to withdraw from the 2018 contest to concentrate on bidding for the 2022 tournament, the venue for which will also be decided on December 2.
The Fifa ethics committee investigating accusations against Mr Adamu and the second suspended delegate, Mr Temarii, both of whom strenuously deny wrongdoing, is also considering suggestions of voting deals - again denied - between Qatar, another candidate for 2022, and Spain/Portugal.
In a separate dispute, a Russian official's remarks about drinking and crime in London led to an apology to England from Vitaly Mutko, Russia's sports minister.
The suspended Fifa delegates are not the first casualties of media interest in the bidding process. The former chairman of the England campaign, the Labour parliamentarian Lord Triesman, resigned in May after telling a former aide, in a private conversation, that Spanish officials wanted the Russians to help to bribe referees at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. His comments were secretly recorded and published in a newspaper.
To add to English discomfort, the BBC is preparing to broadcast the results of its own inquiries into alleged Fifa corruption. With both Russia and the Spain/Portugal campaigns apparently making steady progress, those associated with the England bid are described as downcast.
Richard Caborn, a former sports minister, spoke for many when he told reporters: "Whilst I agree that newspapers and television have every right to investigate they should not be used in a selfish way for circulation or viewing figures and damaging the England bid."
There is general recognition that England's chances have been weakened in the closing stages of the contest. The question that remains is whether even a glowing assessment from Fifa, in an imminent "technical" report on each contending country's suitability to stage the tournament, will be sufficient to undo the damage between now and December 2.