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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Trump gaffe raises hopes for Morocco World Cup bid

Once a long shot, Morocco is challenging the frontrunning bid to host the 2026 tournament

In this Saturday March 17, 2018 file photo, a giant screen display the logo of Morocco 2026 inside of the reception before a press conference to promote Morocco's bib for the 2026 soccer World Cup in Casablanca, Morocco. The North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup has outscored Morocco following inspections with FIFA labeling the North African proposal "high risk" in three areas, it was announced on Friday, June 1. The joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico scored four out of five while Morocco scored 2.7 following FIFA inspections. Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP
In this Saturday March 17, 2018 file photo, a giant screen display the logo of Morocco 2026 inside of the reception before a press conference to promote Morocco's bib for the 2026 soccer World Cup in Casablanca, Morocco. The North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup has outscored Morocco following inspections with FIFA labeling the North African proposal "high risk" in three areas, it was announced on Friday, June 1. The joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico scored four out of five while Morocco scored 2.7 following FIFA inspections. Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP

In the race to host the 2026 football World Cup, the US-led bid was cantering to victory. With the best stadiums and infrastructure, they had prospects of becoming the most profitable tournament in its 88-year history.

Then along came Donald Trump.

“It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the US bid,” said President Trump in a Tweet in April. “Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us?”

After a campaign long-expected to be a coronation for the joint US-Mexico-Canada pitch, the veiled threat from the US president has opened the door on a late run by the sole challenger, Morocco.

Mr Trump’s comments sparked a rebuke from the game’s governing body Fifa for political interference and raised the once unthinkable prospect that the US-led bid might lose when more than 200 football federations vote on Wednesday to decide the destination of the tournament.

“I still think it will go to the combined bid of North America,” said Professor Simon Chadwick, a director of the Centre of Sports Business at Salford University in the UK. “But I think it will be much, much closer than people anticipated.”

The vote on Wednesday will be the first since the controversial decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the subsequent launch of the US-led corruption probe into the sport’s governing body Fifa, and the unwilling departure of its long-term leader Sepp Blatter.

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Read more:

Trump warns countries that do not back World Cup bid

Morocco cleared for World Cup 2026 vote despite 'high risk' areas in bid

World Cup bid underdog Morocco may upset the heavyweights

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The scandals also forced an end to the secret decision-making among a small group of 22 senior administrators. The host nation for 2026 will be decided by a one-federation-one-vote system, with the decisions of each country being made public.

While that has made the prospect of financial corruption of a small number of individuals less likely, it has opened the process to political interference, with countries appearing to form rival power blocs in the fight for one of sport’s most lucrative properties, said experts.

Mr Trump’s intervention aired the possibility that the world’s strongest economy could discriminate against any country that voted against the US bid in future trade talks. It also points to wider forces at play in the soft-power battle to host the first 48 team tournament.

Professor Chadwick said the 2010 decision for Qatar and Russia in 2018 was seen as being a battle about “how much money was left in which person’s hotel room”. It remains to be seen if the “bidding and voting process has essentially been hijacked, not by unscrupulous individuals, but by geopolitically motivated countries,” he said. “Are you on Russia’s side [which backs Morocco], or the US side?”

An evaluation of the bids by Fifa inspectors published this month said the bids represented “two almost opposite ends of the spectrum” with the North America bid ready to host the event at 17 venues, while none were built or ready in Morocco.

The US bid projected revenues of more than $14 billion – double that of Morocco. A scoring system put the US-led bid clearly ahead of the North Africans, who were late entrants to the fray.

Harold Mayne-Nicholls, a Chilean who led the inspection teams for the 2022 World Cup won by Qatar despite it being labelled a high risk option, said that evaluation reports had not mattered in the past.

“I don’t think they [the 22 key voters] even opened the envelope,” he told a London conference last month. “They had their vote taken before we sent them the report.”

Morocco has made a virtue of its underdeveloped infrastructure to highlight the benefits that a World Cup would bring to the region. A win for Morocco would help Fifa in its mission to spread football outside of the lucrative European and South American strongholds.

It would also follow the trend of awarding the tournament to countries to such nations including South Africa, Japan and Korea, and Qatar.

Despite the work required to build the infrastructure of Morocco, it has the advantage of being contained in a single country, and easy for fans to travel between different host cities. The US-led bid involves games across three countries and thousands of miles.

“It’s not good for the fans, but fans interests are normally pretty close to the bottom of Fifa’s considerations,” said Kieran Maguire, an expert in football finance at the University of Liverpool.

Morocco, which has bid for the World Cup on four previous occasions, is expected to receive significant backing from African associations. The continent accounts for 54 votes – more than half of the number needed to win.

In the US bid’s favour is the large financial windfall that would allow the Fifa leadership to redistribute wealth to football federations around the world. The scheme has been a central plank of Gianni Infantino’s bid for re-election as president of football’s governing body.

For the 40 or so clubs unlikely to secure a berth at a World Cup, the promise of lucrative funding is a tempting prospect and would weigh against a Morocco victory, said Mr Maguire.

Awarding the tournament to the US – which was strongly favoured to win the bidding battle against Qatar in 2022 – would also be seen as attempting to right a wrong for a country that has led the anti-corruption purge against Fifa.

But the ‘America First’ Trump factor – his pledge to build a wall along the US southern border to keep out undocumented migrants from World Cup partner Mexico, his tough anti-migration talk, and his derogatory language against African states threatens to alienate many of the voters on Wednesday.

“What happens if Iran qualifies?” asked Prof Chadwick. “How would the US react to applications from large numbers of Iranian football fans?”

Mr Trump wrote to Fifa in May guaranteeing no discrimination for fans applying for visas to the tournament. “Trump hasn’t come up as an issue around the world,” Carlos Cordeiro, president of the US federation, told Bloomberg.

An assessment by the New York Times has suggested that 26 countries have so far pledged to Morocco or are leaning to the country, compared to 24 backing the US bid – leaving the rump undecided.

The Moroccan bid team flew to Moscow last week to lobby the delegations in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote. “In principal it’s fine and grand to have this much more open and transparent process but it does expose countries to undue influence,” said Prof Chadwick.