ZURICH: The race to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is still considered to be wide open as it enters the final week having survived a corruption scandal which threatened to derail the whole process.
Voting is restricted to members of FIFA`s executive committee and bidders believe many are still undecided. Even the number of voters taking part on December 2 is uncertain after two of the 24-man committee were suspended and FIFA still has to decide on a last-minute request to replace one of them.
FIFA has prepared painstaking reports on the technical and financial attributes of each bid, but Sepp Blatter, president of soccer`s governing body, appreciates personal whims could hold more sway than the quality of the bids themselves.
"It wouldn`t be worth making technical reports if finally those who are going to vote are not using the information of such reports," he said.
"But we are not only dealing with the World Cup institution, we are also dealing with human beings, and they have ideas other than those which are available in the documents."
There are four bids for the 2018 tournament from England, Russia, Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium and five for 2022 -- United States, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Australia.
Of those, Russia, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, Qatar and Australia have never staged soccer`s biggest event.
The contest began in earnest on January 15 2009, when FIFA launched its invitation to bid but, after nearly two years of lobbying, many feel the last few days could be decisive.
"I`d like to think it`s still open. Maybe there are some people who haven`t made up their minds, I would like to think the game will be settled in the very last minute," a source close to one of the bids told Reuters.
Andy Anson, CEO of England`s bid, was also in the dark.
"No-one knows which way the vote is going to go, and no-one can know, whatever they tell you," he said.
"We are confident that our bid will be successful based on what executive committee members have told us -- but you never know what might happen on the day they vote."
With Brazil awarded the 2014 tournament unopposed, it is 10 years since FIFA last held a genuine contest for World Cup hosting, when Germany edged South Africa for the 2006 event in controversial circumstances.
But recent experiences with the Olympic Games show that last-minute lobbying can tip the balance between bids.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is largely credited with having won London the right to stage the 2012 Games at the expense of Paris while the influence of then Russian President Vladimir Putin`s influence was seen as crucial in helping rank outsider Sochi win the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Following this lead, England are sending a delegation to Zurich led by Prime Minister David Cameron and including heir to the throne, Prince William.
Putin has taken an active part in the Russian campaign, although they would not confirm whether the Russian Prime Minister would travel to Zurich, and former president Bill Clinton will be with the U.S. delegation as honorary president of the bid.
The process has already been hit by controversy with two executive committee members -- Reynald Temarii of Tahiti and Amos Adamu of Nigeria -- suspended following an investigation into allegations they offered to sell their votes to undercover newspaper reporters.
Temarii, who as Oceania Football Confederation`s only voter had been expected to back Australia, was found guilty of breaking general rules of ethics, while Adamu was found guilty of bribery.
On Saturday, the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) said they would ask FIFA if Temarii could be replaced.
The last competitive vote in 2000 ended in controversy when New Zealand`s Charles Dempsey, who had been instructed by the Oceania confederation to vote for South Africa, instead abstained in the final round and Germany won by 12 votes to 11.
If the late Dempsey, who said he was in a "no-win" situation, had voted as instructed, the result would have been tied and Blatter would have had the casting vote.
This time, it could be equally close.