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On the sidelines, a World Cup bidding war

JOHANNESBURG – While the world’s soccer stars have been wowing fans on the field, off the pitch, politicians and former presidents have been doing their own fancy footwork – to try to win bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

A who’s who list of politicians, billionaires, sports icons and royalty from all over the world have been visiting South Africa to pitch their respective countries for hosting privileges (and, of course, take in some World Cup action).

Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Vice President Joe Biden attend the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening match between South Africa and Mexico on June 11 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Among the bidders is the U.S., which hosted the contest in 1994. Since applications began in January 2009, 11 bids representing 13 countries (Belgium/Netherlands and Spain/Portugal offered joint bids) have announced. Two of those countries, Mexico and Indonesia, have since pulled out.

Bidding for the World Cup is a long, cumbersome process and the competition is fierce. Though some South Africans question the value of hosting the event, the staggering economic benefit – "revenue like 12 Super Bowls" as one American newspaper put it – is enough to draw strong interest from almost any country.

A study commissioned by the USA Bid Committee found that the World Cup could potentially bring the 12 suggested American host cities anywhere from $400 to $600 million each and create a total of 65,000 to 100,000 new jobs.

Star spangled support
Since the U.S. bid was announced back in 2007, it has been strengthened by the support of prominent politicians such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. President Barack Obama even invited FIFA president Sepp Blatter to the White House last July to lend his support for the U.S. bid, reportedly reminiscing about playing soccer as a boy in Indonesia.

Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt, Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman and sports greats Oscar De La Hoya, Mia Hamm and current U.S. team star Landon Donovan have also lent their names and time to the cause.

Vice President Joe Biden launched America’s high profile wooing in South Africa earlier this month when he met with Blatter while attending the opening ceremony and America’s first match, against England.

"About 25 million Americans are playing soccer. Eighty percent of those folks are young kids, which means it's only going to grow in the United States," said Biden on the official U.S. Bid Committee’s website. "I'm hopeful that we have a real clear shot then by the end of this year we’re going to be picked as the site for one of the next World Cups."

And former President Bill Clinton made ripples both here and back in the U.S. when he joined the American team for a post victory locker room Budweiser. Much of his time here has been spent lobbying for the World Cup in his role as honorary chairman for the U.S. Bid Committee. He has even extended his visit to watch the U.S. play Ghana on Saturday.

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Former President Bill Clinton celebrates the U.S. World Cup victory over Algeria with American player Carlos Bocanegra. The photo originally appeared on Bocanegra's Facebook page.

After the headaches involved in preparing South Africa and Brazil (the 2014 host) – two countries initially lacking the infrastructure required to host the World Cup – many believe FIFA is looking for a country that already has many of the stadiums and logistical foundations in place, a qualification that Clinton believes makes the U.S. a favorite.

"It's good for us, actually because we won't have to spend a fortune to get ready for it," said Clinton at a press conference here earlier this week.

The U.S. bid has been buoyed by Major League Soccer’s growing popularity and a strong legacy from when it hosted the 1994 Cup, which drew over 3.5 million spectators and average match attendance of 68,991.

Strong competition from Europe
The U.S. bid faces most competition from Europe, with many insiders believing a European country will win the 2018 bid, leaving 2022 to the Americans. In particular, the English and Russian bids have come to the forefront, especially after Blatter allegedly said that joint bids would not be viewed as favorably as single nation ones.

The Russians took advantage of the 60 FIFA Congress in Johannesburg earlier this month to make a strong case for Russia’s first World Cup. Representing their delegation were a slew of well-known Russian soccer stars and billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns one of England’s most prominent teams, Chelsea.

Meanwhile, the English have relied heavily on the charms of global soccer icon David Beckham, who has been here for most of the month promoting the English bid. He was recently joined by Princes William and Harry, who combined a charity-promoting trip to several African countries with a World Cup visit.

Though the royals have been met with great fanfare and delight by FIFA, the all-star cast has been forced to smooth over several scandals that have rocked the English Organizing Committee as of late. Nevertheless, many believe that with a strong soccer infrastructure in place already thanks to its lucrative Premier League, the English bid represents the strongest technical bid in its class.