Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Look who’s standing in Morocco’s way

There are forces, including Donald Trump, who do not want Morocco to host the 2026 World Cup, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani


Morocco has tried to host the football World Cup four times and each time it has come up short. The North African country is now going for World Cup attempt No 5, that which will be held in 2026. There is only one challenger to Morocco when the vote will be held on 13 June in Moscow. The United States, Mexico and Canada are bidding jointly for 2026. This tripartite alliance, called United, has several advantages over Morocco, wielding considerable economic muscle, world class infrastructure and undisputed sporting prowess.

Which is fine. As much as Egypt and other Arab and African countries would like to see a brother country stage the world’s biggest one-sport extravaganza, they must also be pragmatic enough to acknowledge that the troika has significant strengths over Morocco that give it the edge over who will host 2026.

But Morocco is not just battling the trio for the right to hold 2026. There are other forces at play – and which are less than sportsmanlike. Like Donald Trump. Last month, the US president tweeted: “It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid.” “Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?”

Trump is probably not well versed on FIFA regulations. To bring him up to speed, his intervention is a clear case of political interference, a FIFA no-no. Football’s world governing body has sanctioned national teams for what was perceived to be governments poking their nose in business not theirs, for instance, when the head of a federation is ousted by a government, not its football officials.

However, Trump surely understands that his tweet was a veiled threat: countries that support the Moroccan bid could be put on the US blacklist, politically and maybe financially. This superpower is bullying lesser nations and the arm twisting is ugly and beneath the dignity of the Oval Office.

Either out of politeness or fear, FIFA’s response to Trump was not to mention his name but to point to its rule book. It contains an explicit warning against activities by bidding country governments which “may adversely affect the integrity of the Bidding Process and create an undue influence on the Bidding Process”. If one hadn’t known better, you would think the bid rules were written specifically for Donald Trump.

Somebody other than the American president is also purportedly standing in the way of Morocco’s bid: FIFA boss himself Gianni Infantino. A senior FIFA source who wishes to remain anonymous alleges in a BBC report that Infantino “encouraged” the taskforce, whose job it is to evaluate World Cup bids, to find evidence that could block Morocco’s candidacy. Reason? It is claimed Infantino favours the rival North American bid given the enormous financial advantage it has over its African rival.

This three-pronged bid by the US, Canada and Mexico is projected to create $14 billion in revenue, and would make an $11 billion profit for FIFA. FIFA’s cash register must be drooling. The bidding process comes just as FIFA is facing a financial shortfall following years of dealing with expensive legal bills resulting from a US Department of Justice investigation into corrupt executives. It has also struggled to attract major sponsors to this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

In light of this, it is believed Infantino wants the North American bid to win given organisers’ claims it will generate around $5 billion in economic activity and $2.1 billion in ticket revenue alone.

Infantino cannot be blamed if dollar signs have replaced his eyeballs. One World Cup is enough to fund FIFA almost entirely. But to try to get his hands on the money by trying to find some sort of shortcoming in the Moroccan bid, real or made-up, is scandalous.

FIFA insists Infantino is not involved in the 2026 vote whatsoever, however, there are claims the Morocco bid team were only told of some eligibility criteria hours before their bid had to be submitted, potentially weakening its submission while strengthening the United bid. Are Infantino’s fingerprints on those last-minute missing details?

There’s more. The FIFA 2026 bid evaluation taskforce — which recently visited North American and Moroccan cities — includes two deputies who some Morocco bid supporters have suggested are Infantino allies, raising questions over the taskforce’s impartiality and independence from FIFA.

Has the scent, or is it stench, of FIFA corruption wafted back? The revelations come as the governing body is attempting to reform following political and financial scandals which culminated in that infamous police dawn raid at a luxury Zurich hotel in May 2015, the extradition of FIFA executives to face trial in the US and the eventual deposing of Sepp Blatter as the organisation’s long-serving president.

One of the biggest of the scandals was the controversial decision to grant the 2018 edition to Russia and 2022 to Qatar. Those choices have been mired in controversy ever since and are the subject of several ongoing criminal investigations. For example, Blatter has suggested there was an agreement in place for Russia to host 2018 even before the vote took place.

The 2026 tournament is set to be the first World Cup to be allocated since those days of disgrace and thus it is important the world sees a cleaner FIFA. FIFA supposedly recovered from the trauma and it was assumed had turned a new leaf with Infantino. In a notable departure from past, FIFA radically overhauled its voting procedures for 2026 as a result of the Russia/Qatar process that was marred by accusations of bribery, vote-trading and corruption. Instead of just 24 board members voting, the entire 211 member associations will cast ballots. For the first time, too, every vote will be made public in the interests of accountability. Now the public will know who voted for who (although that could give rise to intimidation by someone like Trump).

In a free and fair vote, the odds are that the North American triumvirate would beat Morocco hands down. The North American bid boasts large stadiums and excellent infrastructure, crucial for a World Cup which will expand to 48 teams and 80 matches for the first time. The US has also hosted a World Cup, in 1994. Mexico had it twice, 1970 and 1986. Canada does not have a World Cup under its belt but has hosted three Summer and Winter Olympic Games, testimony to its logistical competence.

But Morocco has many plusses. It too has major soccer event-hosting experience, including the FIFA Club World Cups of 2013 and 2014, the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations and this year’s African Nations Championship. It plans to stage matches across 12 cities and 14 stadiums, including nine newly constructed facilities. Morocco’s future infrastructure development plans include a speed rail line coming soon.

Moroccan officials acknowledge that since their bid is unable to compete with a North American World Cup in terms of commercial, ticketing and hospitality revenue projections, they must focus on what their opposition does not have. That would be its geographical location which they say will offer more primetime matches in Europe and help maximise the value of broadcast rights. Since 16 nations from Europe are in a World Cup, and Europe is more than half the world in terms of revenue generation, that could prove hugely attractive for FIFA given the importance of European World Cup TV deals to the body’s coffers.

Morocco is smartly making its rival’s plans to spread the World Cup on an entire continent appear a disadvantage, instead promoting the compact nature of its bid. The limited travel and comparatively simple logistics of staging all matches within a 550km radius from Casablanca is enticing. The World Cup has been staged in more than one country only once when it was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002, a tournament Blatter says was a “nightmare in organisation”.

In any case, reports suggest Morocco stands to receive broad support among African nations who collectively represent some 53 of the votes up for grabs. Morocco could benefit from widespread support in the Arab world and reportedly Asia to win the necessary 104 majority votes needed for victory. France and Russia also plan to back Morocco.

Morocco will use its long soccer history, its security and its proximity to Europe — which remains the financial focus of the game — in an attempt to win votes. Morocco is almost an extension of southern Europe. Teams could thus easily set up training camps in Spain and France — one of the things FIFA looks for when deciding on a World Cup venue.

Morocco is a resilient kingdom. Any other country that has made and lost four World Cup bids would have thrown in the towel long ago. It is to Morocco’s credit that after bidding for the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 finals, it is trying yet again. But Morocco’s bid is not to be undermined. FIFA should rein in its own boss Infantino who in turn should insist that Trump halt his political meddling. So far, neither has been happening.

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