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Where sport and politics meet

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James Pearce | 10:39 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Zurich, Switzerland

Reporting on the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cup bids this week makes me feel a bit like Charlie in that chocolate factory. I love sport and am fascinated by politics. Add the two together, throw in a touch of royalty and you'll understand why I count myself as one of the holders of those golden tickets.

What sport and politics have in common is their unpredictability - and this sums up the drama of the World Cup bidding process. How about we put 22 powerful men in a room together and tell them to elect the nation which will host one of the world's biggest sporting events - a competition likely to generate billions of pounds. I guarantee intrigue, tension, excitement and, yes, plenty of drama.

Ten years ago, I was here in Zurich to report on the 2006 bidding decision. I had covered much of the final month of that campaign, making a film for Newsnight on the closing stages of England's doomed bid. Wherever I travelled and whomever I spoke to, I was told that South Africa had it in the bag. "Sepp Blatter (Fifa president) wants South Africa to win," they all said, "and Sepp Blatter gets what he wants."

In those days I was probably a little more gullible but I happily went along with the popular opinion. Then, late at night on the eve of the vote, it all changed. I was wandering down a corridor of the hotel where the voters were staying when I bumped into one of my best Fifa contacts. Everything had changed he told me. The four Asian members of the executive committee were angry with Blatter about the amount of slots their countries were being given at the next World Cup. They had told him they were switching their support from South Africa to Germany in protest. In one evening, the pendulum had swung away from South Africa. The next day, Germany, with the extra help of Charles Dempsey's failure to vote, went on to win the right to host the 2006 event.

It was a major upset. I can still recall the pained expression on the face of Danny Jordaan, the South African bid leader, as Blatter opened the envelope and announced Germany as the winner. For two years, he had believed that he was about to bring the World Cup to South Africa. That honour had been taken away from him by politics which were ultimately out of his control. He eventually got his reward, of course, four years later but I know that he will never forget that day of defeat in Zurich in 2000.

Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham meet in Zurich

Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham hope to impress delegates in Zurich. Photo: Getty

Fast forward five years to Singapore in 2005. Paris was the red-hot favourite to win the right to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. It would take a whole separate blog post to explain the reasons why they blew it - and it has been well written before - but once again we lovers of sports politics were treated to a week of unforgettable drama.

What Fifa and the International Olympic Committee have in common are small electorates. It is usually 24 voting members for Fifa and around 115 for the IOC. What this means is that a few successful face-to-face meetings in the frantic last hours of a campaign can make all the difference. One vote lost here or gained there can be all that separates victory from defeat. London beat Paris by 54 votes to 50. If two people had changed their minds, it could all have been so different.

No wonder that the lobbies of the relevant hotels are packed until the last drink is served on the night before a vote. In sports elections like this, every single vote really does count. If Tony Blair had gone to bed an hour earlier on the night before the vote in Singapore and missed the opportunity to see three or four more IOC members, then we might well be talking now about Paris 2012 and not London 2012.

On Thursday, the host nations for two World Cups will be decided and I can honestly say that nobody can really be sure who is going to win. The Baur au Lac Hotel is where it will all be decided. That is the five-star venue where the Fifa voters are staying. It is where the wheeler dealing is taking place. If this was an important political contest, rather than a sporting political one, then you would not be able to get close to the action.

Imagine being inside Downing Street the night before Margaret Thatcher decided that she had to step down as prime minister, having been told that she was in danger of being beaten by Michael Heseltine. Of course, it could never happen. That type of history is made behind closed doors.

Not here. The hotel's concierge politely held open the door for me as I walked inside. I turned to the left and headed into the lobby. There was Andy Anson, the head of the England bid, leaning over a shelf as he held talks with Jack Warner - the man from Trinidad whose support England simply must have if they are to have any chance of winning.

It was all happening right in front of me. The negotiations that could ultimately determine the outcome of the contest. David Cameron then marched past, flanked by the usual security. He had been meeting another Fifa voter in a room upstairs. Everybody looked towards him. What could we read into his face? Who had he been meeting? How had it gone? You will not be surprised to hear that the prime minister gave nothing away. But that did not stop everybody else in the hotel lobby entering yet another round of speculation about what would happen on Thursday.

In many ways, sports politics is a cruel business. I am just an observer but many of those I am watching have dedicated the last two years of their lives to this process. They now have to plead face to face, in front of a gallery of spectators, for the votes that would make all that hard work worthwhile.

The vote is going to be close on Thursday. If the England bid team ends up being unsuccessful, nobody will be able to accuse them of not working hard enough.

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