Nick Clegg, who unlike many politicians has never declared a particular interest in football, welcomed Fifa inspectors to Downing Street at the start of the football governing body’s four-day tour to examine the credentials of England’s bid to stage the 2018 World Cup.
As David Cameron continues holidaying in Cornwall, the deputy prime minister was wheeled out as substitute for his coalition partner to present England’s case along with other ministers, the 2018 bid team and the Football Association. After the Downing Street pleasantries, the six-man Fifa delegation travelled to Wembley to meet England coach Fabio Capello and tour the stadium.
Their trip takes in visits to Manchester’s Old Trafford and City of Manchester stadiums, and they will also journey to Newcastle and Sunderland - other venues should England win the right to host the tournament.
Ahead of the trip, Number 10 appeared non-plussed when asked whether Mr Clegg was a football fan: the deputy prime minister is better known for his love of tennis and skiing.
The prime minister’s spokesman was also unable to say whether any coalition cabinet members were football fans, a departure from the Labour government, where football-loving Gordon Brown led a cabinet including a number of keen footballers, including Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, David Miliband and James Purnell.
Mr Brown kick-started the England bid during his term of office by providing government guarantees of £300m, and Mr Clegg told the visiting inspectors that those commitments “are ones that we back 100 per cent”. He congratulated Fifa for the successful South African tournament, and said England’s facilities and infrastructure were already in place, while public backing for the bid was unquestioned.
“I think there are very few nations that can claim the same passion that we have in England for the game of football,” he added.
Mr Cameron is not the only high-profile member of the bid missing from the welcoming party. David Beckham is training in California with his LA Galaxy team-mates and Prince William, is on military duties.
Instead, Fifa inspectors must make do with England players Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, who will greet the bid inspectors in Manchester on Tuesday, and a glimpse of an England 2018 hot-air balloon in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace, which the Queen’s courtiers have consented to fly above the royal residence to signify the monarch’s backing for the campaign.
None of these details should make that much difference to England’s chances against rivals who include Russia, the US, Qatar and the split bids of Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium. The people who decide the destiny of both the 2018 and 2022 world cups are the 24 members of Fifa’s executive committee and none of them are part of this week’s delegation.
The crunch time will come in the days and weeks leading up to their decision on December 2 in Zurich when lobbying from all countries will intensify.
Nevertheless, by showing the inspectors stadiums and other facilities ready to host a World Cup, the bid team will do its utmost to emphasise that choosing England would represent a “safe bet”. Compared to England’s strong rival Russia, which must build nearly all its proposed stadiums from scratch, the technical side to hosting a world cup is one of England’s strongest cards.
That point was made for it by Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s president, who told the inside world football website that England already had what it takes to stage the tournament.
“The easiest way to organise the World Cup is to go to England. Everything is there – fans, stadiums, infrastructure – it’s easy,” said Mr Blatter, who added that England’s dismal showing on the pitch in South Africa made no difference to the quality of its bid.
But he also hinted at what the England bid team must fear may be in the minds of many Fifa executive committee members - that choosing England is perhaps too easy an option for Fifa, and that the more adventurous option, for a governing body emboldened by the success of South Africa’s World Cup, might be to pick Russia.
“You cannot deny Russia if they bid for something. They are more than a country. They are a big continent, a big power,” said Mr Blatter.
England’s bid team will also provide details of its plan to create a worldwide legacy from a 2018 world cup in England by setting up a global football fund to support international football projects.