Fifa officials say resentment of America’s president is helping Morocco’s challenge gain support.
In Moscow on June 13 — the eve of the opening match in the 2018 tournament — members of Fifa, international football’s governing body, will select the hosts of the 2026 competition. The choice is between a powerhouse joint bid from the US, Canada and Mexico, three of the world’s largest economies, and Morocco, which barely scrapes into the top 60. And yet the north African state is, as one Fifa official puts it, “coming up on the rails” in the fight to host what would be the biggest World Cup ever. One of the key factors appears to be simmering resentment, especially among some African members, towards US president Donald Trump. Each of Fifa more than 200 member nations will cast a vote, with 104 needed for victory. It is a decision taken by sports administrators, but one national politicians may wish to influence.
Anticipating nearly unanimous support from within its own continent the North American bid team were jolted last month when Edmund Estephane, St Lucia’s minister for development and sports, told reporters the island would back Morocco “200 per cent”. Yet when the Financial Times put this to Lyndon Cooper, president of Saint Lucia’s Football Association, who will cast his country’s vote in Moscow, he says: “No determination has been made. We will support the bid that will benefit our country, our people and our sport.”
The confusion adds to the sense that the North American bid — the overwhelming favourite with its world-class stadiums, training facilities and a promise of record profits — is not as secure as many had thought even a few months ago with some officials blaming what they call the “Donald Trump effect". It is a recognition that regardless of the technical merits of either bid, global politics will play a part in the decision. An adviser to one of Fifa’s top executives says many developing nations are balking at handing the US president a victory after he referred to African states as “shithole countries”.
In a sign of the uncertainty surrounding the vote, some close to the Fifa leadership believe its members will plump for the North American bid to help assuage the American officials behind the ongoing bribery probe. While others argue the opposite is true, and that members may seek to punish the US for launching the bribery investigation in the first place. “The future of Fifa is not dependent on, but it is linked to, having the right vote [in technical terms] for 2026,” says one of Fifa’s top executives. “If it just comes down to politics, rather than assessing what is good for the organization — remember the World Cup provides 90 per cent of Fifa’s revenues — you have to question why the bidding process exists at all.”
United front When the joint US, Canada and Mexico bid — dubbed “United 2026” — was launched in April 2017 there was little expectation of a contest. Fifa rules require the World Cup to rotate around continents, restricting challenges from the European and Asian federations, given that the next two tournaments are to be held in those regions. Morocco promises a more compact event for fans and teams, with matches played in a timezone better suited to European and Asian TV markets. But the 2026 tournament, the first to feature 48, rather than 32 teams, making it more expensive, would appear to favour the US-led bid. Last year, a suggestion that Fifa should fast-track the North American bid without a formal vote was considered, but ultimately shelved. Morocco, which has unsuccessfully bid to host the tournament four times before, joined the race with only hours to spare before last August’s deadline. Few expected it could challenge the North American effort, which promises revenues of $14bn from broadcasting, sponsorship and ticketing, with profits around double those achieved by any previous tournament. The vast majority of matches, including the final, will take place in the US but games will be staged across 23 cities from New York and Los Angeles to Mexico City and Toronto, all in stadiums already built. The United team says it could host the World Cup tomorrow if required.
Carlos Cordeiro, president of the United States Soccer Federation, says a North American World Cup could also attract sponsors wary of being associated with Fifa since the scandal broke. “You would like to think that not just Coca-Cola, but maybe several other of the Fortune 500 companies that are based in North America, will become Fifa partners over many, many years,” he says. “The economic side is not everything but it’s not unimportant either.” By contrast, Morocco has proposed a $3bn stadium construction plan, to build nine new venues including a 93,000 seater stadium in Casablanca at an estimated cost of $400m. The government-backed plan involves a total of $15.8bn in infrastructure spending, but the bid team says the vast majority of this cost, such as the building of two high-speed rail lines, are already part of the country’s modernisation plans. Morocco predicts a profit of $5bn, less than half that of its rival. To compensate, it highlights other advantages; less travel for fans, passionate home support and, in a none-too-subtle dig at its American counterparts, “very low gun circulation”.