Fifa faces credibility test
The official agenda for the meeting of Fifa's executive committee on Thursday and Friday could hardly be more bland. Let me give you a little taste of it just to whet your appetite:
"Reports and Updates on the 2010 Fifa World Cup, 2014 Fifa World Cup, 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups, and the 2010 Fifa Women's Under 20 and Under 17 World Cups."
Important stuff, of course, but hardly fascinating. The reality, as we all know, is going to be very different.
Hidden behind the words on the agenda "2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups" lie allegations so serious that the credibility of the whole bidding process is in question.
This is going to be one of the most important meetings in the organisation's recent history. Fifa somehow has to find a way to bring some transparency to the election for the two host nations. If not, then whoever wins on December 2nd is going to face, at best, nudges, winks and innuendo for years to come.
All 24 members of the Fifa executive committee should have been in Zurich for the meeting. There will, of course, only be 22.
Two members have been suspended following the allegations in the Sunday Times about cash for votes. The cases of those two won't be considered by Fifa's ethics committee until the middle of November, but nobody is under the illusion that their suspension will enable this all to go away.
Fifa's difficulty is that traditionally it's been very slow to react when confronted by problems. In the past, allegations about the organisation have normally been brushed aside.
Transparency isn't a word that springs to mind when talk turns to Fifa. In fact, until a year ago, the rules of the contests for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were seen to be so sensitive by Fifa that they remained a secret. Bidding nations were sent a copy but only on the condition that they weren't disclosed to any outside parties.
I'm not normally one to blow my own trumpet, but I hope that on this one occasion you'll forgive me a short blast. I spent a great deal of time at the end of last year pushing Fifa to publish the rules. I'd revealed that England had bought designer handbags for the wives of all the Fifa voters, but nobody could actually tell me if that was an infringement of the rules, because the rules were a secret. It was a farcical situation.
Eventually, Fifa got so fed up with my constant emails and phone calls that it finally agreed to publish the regulations on its website.
It's those same regulations which have been scrutinised in so much detail over recent weeks as the various allegations have emerged. Now, I'm not expecting thanks from Fifa any time soon, but deep down President Sepp Blatter must be grateful that I did push him to publish. Just imagine if the Sunday Times had gone to press with their revelations and the rules of the contest had still remained a secret.....
By the way, for those of you who are interested, here's a link to the most relevant rules of conduct for bidding nations.
So what Fifa needs to do this week is show that it's a changed organisation. That nervousness of putting any information into the public domain has to be conquered fast.
If the votes for 2018 and 2022 are to have any credibility at all then Fifa will need to make the process so transparent that even the most cynical members of the public can be convinced. That means that Fifa is going to have to do something which in the past has not come naturally. It's going to have to tell everybody what's going on.
This week, the Fifa executive committee will decide the format for the voting. Some of the most damaging allegations have centred around potential collusion between candidates for 2018 and 2022. Fifa has to come up with a process that prevents that, and then tell us what that process is. Nobody is pretending that will be easy.
The latest spat between England and Russia illustrates how the tension is building amongst the competing nations as December 2nd approaches.
England are unlikely to gain much from lodging a complaint about comments attributed to Alexei Sorokin, the leader of Russia's bid, on London's "high crime rate" and youth alcohol problems. The fact that a complaint has been lodged at all, though, is probably a reflection on how difficult this contest has become for all those involved in it.
An electorate of 24 is so small that one slip can influence one vote, and potentially the outcome of the whole thing. When that electorate possibly begins to shrink, with the suspension of two members just weeks before the vote, it's hardly surprising that the bidding nations begin to show the strain. Their carefully planned strategies might have to be thrown out of the window if some members are prevented from voting.
I've been asked over and over again during recent days what I believe will be the impact of the Sunday Times allegations on the England bid. Well, in many ways the answer is up to Sepp Blatter and Fifa. What all those who love international football should hope is that these allegations will increase the chances of the best candidates for 2018 and 2022 actually winning.
You don't need me to tell you how big is the prize at stake. The 22 men who will sit around a table in Zurich this week have a responsibility to the rest of the world to get this right.
The vote on December 2nd must be seen to be squeaky clean. If not, then the members of the Fifa executive committee will be well aware that it's their positions of power, which some of them cherish so much, that will be questioned by football lovers all over the globe.