England will go into Thursday's FIFA vote to decide the 2018 World Cup hosts as genuine contenders.

England now look to be neck-and-neck with Spain/Portugal after Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin's amazing speech in which he announced he would not travel to Zurich for the vote. Holland/Belgium are also bidding but are viewed as the outsiders in the secret ballot of the 22 FIFA executive committee members.

The scenario of England facing Spain/Portugal in the final round has been backed up by the Iberian bid's chief executive Miguel Angel Lopez, who said: "We are confident we are not certain. We think will win, we have eight votes for sure and it looks like it will be against England in the final round."

Putin's announcement that he will not be travelling to Zurich was accompanied by an apparent attack on British media investigations of FIFA.

Putin said: "We have watched with disappointment as an obvious campaign was being unleashed against members of the FIFA executive committee.

"They are being dragged through the mud and smeared. I interpret this as unfair competition. We believe that such methods of competition are entirely unacceptable.

"Under these circumstances, I think it would be best not to go out of respect for the members of the FIFA executive committee, so that they could make their decision in peace and without any outside pressure."

Putin's absence was in stark contrast to the activities of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been in Zurich since Tuesday along with Prince William and David Beckham meeting FIFA members.

Cameron even flew back to London for Prime Minister's Questions before returning to Switzerland on Wednesday for more last-minute lobbying, while Prince William finished one meeting after midnight before having breakfast on Wednesday morning with Nicolas Leoz.

England will have William, Cameron and Beckham as part of their five-man team for Thursday's bid presentation along with bid chief executive Andy Anson and Eddie Afekafe, a bid ambassador who works with a Manchester City community football programme.

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