LONDON, England – Neither the United States nor England are willing to admit it, but the opening bell sounded this week on the political punch-up that will form the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup.
Although the U.S. national team left Wembley Stadium nursing a 2-0 defeat on Wednesday, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati and his delegation returned home having emerged victorious from the first round of hostilities.
There are three and a half years, a million handshakes, hundreds of news conferences, endless hours of schmoozing and countless hushed conversations to go before we find out who will host the tournament. But it already looks like FIFA's decision will boil down to a heavyweight showdown between two powerful candidates.
The relationship between U.S. Soccer and its English counterpart, the Football Association, is a good one. The mutual respect between the two organizations makes it even more likely that this will be one of the hardest-fought campaigns in World Cup history.
In a postmatch conversation with Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday, Gulati dismissed suggestions that the politicking of the bidding process is underway. However, in a round-table breakfast discussion with key British media members on Tuesday, Gulati made a hugely positive impression and left some of the previously cynical U.K. press corps in no doubt that the Stateside threat to an English World Cup is very real.
"The numbers were devastating," said Tim Rich, a football writer for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. "Sunil and his group were thoroughly impressive and it was the power of the raw figures they produced that was really eye-opening."
WORLD CUP NUMBERS GAME
Here are some of the figures that U.S. Soccer can point to for its 2018 World Cup bid:
50 – Stadiums with 70,000-seat capacity or above that the U.S. will offer to FIFA as prospective venues.
$1.4 billion – Dollars spent on the New York Jets and New York Giants stadium being built in New Jersey, which would be the flagship arena for the World Cup.
2011 – Projected opening date of the new Dallas Cowboys' $ 1 billion stadium, also part of the U.S. proposal.
3,587,538 – Total attendance of 1994 World Cup, an all-time record.
68,991 – Average attendance of 1994 World Cup, also an all-time record.
The impression made by the U.S. contingent will not have been lost on the F.A., which is desperate to complete a golden decade for British sports by following the 2012 London Olympics with a successful bid for 2018.
F.A. chief executive Brian Barwick may struggle to match Gulati – who has a growing reputation in world soccer's corridors of power – in terms of dynamism of personality and business and political nous. However, the Englishman does have a historic and powerful machine behind him in the F.A. and is also likely to be heavily backed by the British government.
England's best chance of success would be with a transparent and public affair that tried first to draw upon national support and then use that patriotic enthusiasm to convince the soccer world of its suitability. The decision to visit Trinidad and Tobago this weekend for England's friendly, an exhibition match widely believed to be aimed at securing the vote of powerful CONCACAF chief Jack Warner, is overly political at this early stage, and worse, clumsy.
There is more chance of Warner becoming the next head coach of Chelsea than there is of him steering his CONCACAF allies into a vote against a nation from their own region.
England's greatest plus points are its history, the 42 years and counting that have elapsed since it last staged the tournament and the sense that 16 years between World Cups held in Europe is too long. South Africa will host in 2010 and Brazil in 2014.
Gulati knows all of this, but he has confidence that the infrastructure the U.S. bid can offer will be too strong to ignore.
"There is a fine line when you are talking about the numbers," Gulati admitted. "In the United States, things are so big that it sounds like you are being arrogant about it.
"But the fact is that the attendance record from the 1994 World Cup in the United States still holds, even though there were fewer games played then than now. That World Cup was a record not just for average attendance, but total attendance.
"Because of the phenomenon that is the NFL, we also have however many stadiums that can hold 70,000 or 80,000 people. Those are all positives.
"There is no a country in the world in a better position in terms of stadium facilities and size. We could have hosted the World Cup in 1998 in stadiums that didn't even exist when we hosted it in 1994 and we could have done the same in 2002 and not use any stadiums that existed in 1998."
England rightly feels good about its own stadiums, with Wembley having been recently revamped (albeit at an enormous cost), an Olympic Stadium due to be built and Manchester United's Old Trafford having been developed into an awe-inspiring arena. Even so, if it does boil down to a battle of the venues, the sheer volume of huge modern U.S. stadiums would be a massive advantage.
"Some of the figures were quite incredible," said Alec Wilkinson, a reporter with Sky Sports News. "I think it was something we were not really aware of over here and it made for a strong case."
The ramifications of a winning bid would be massive for either nation, or for a shock choice such as Australia, China or Russia. For the United States, staging the World Cup for the second time would add momentum to the inexorable progress being made by soccer in North America.
Gulati knows the importance of this tournament and this bid, and that is why he is keeping his cards close to his chest while England throws its hand face-up on the table. After all, the U.S. has not yet even officially announced that it will submit a bid. England entered the fray six months ago.
At this stage, Gulati and his group are playing it cool and holding their nerve. But the fight will be long and arduous and nerve-wrecking.
What else would you expect when soccer's ultimate prize is at stake?