World Cup 2026: Will Morocco’s star rise, or will Beckham call the shots?

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Kevin Affleck

LONDON: You know the bidding war for the right to host the 2026 World Cup is getting serious when David Beckham is wheeled out to turn on the charm.

There is no more recognizable face in world football than the former England captain.

Now, in an entirely predictable move given that he owns a US Major Soccer League franchise, Beckham has thrown his weight behind the North American bid.

Having Beckham lobbying is no guarantee of success, mind. Look what happened to England in the bungled bid for 2018: They received just two out of 22 votes. But that bidding process, for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, was later exposed as being riddled with greed, kickbacks, corruption and cover-ups.

FIFA are vowing this one will be different — and it needs to be.

The awarding of the 2026 World Cup is the first on the watch of new president Gianni Infantino, and the process needs to be squeaky-clean, whiter than white, as it could well end up defining his reign. If the Swiss-Italian wants a second term as president — he will stand for re-election next June — this decision has to be transparent.

The process will certainly be different. For the first time FIFA will decide the hosts based on a majority decision of its 211-member federation’s leaders. In the past, the 24 people on the executive committee were the only ones who voted.

Infantino does not get a vote, but his influence is wide-ranging. Moroccan bid leaders have publicly suspected him of favoring the joint US-Canada-Mexico bid. They let their disappointment be known when, in December, football’s most powerful man appeared to give his backing to the American-led bid.

“Joint biddings are certainly positive,” Infantino said at a conference in Dubai. “And let me say one more thing, to have Canada, the US and Mexico coming together for a joint project, already this is a positive message.”

There is also the worry for the North Africans that Infantino and US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati go back a long way: Their hometowns in Switzerland are just six miles apart. Gulati was also hugely instrumental in electing Infantino as FIFA president. Infantino owes the Americans, and lobbying to get them the World Cup could be a nice way of saying thank you. There is a feeling that the US are owed one after missing out on 2022.

Morocco will be entitled to wonder if their time will ever come if they fail in a fifth attempt to host the finals. They are turning into serial bidders — always the bridesmaid, but never the bride. They lost bids to host the World Cup in 1994, 1998, 2006, and 2010 to the US, France, Germany, and South Africa, respectively.

The one to South Africa, in 2010, hurt the most and cut the deepest. They thought they were nailed-on hosts until the disgraced Jack Warner, the former FIFA vice president, reportedly received a $1 million bribe to endorse the South Africa bid and swing the vote. South African officials deny this. It has also been claimed that Morocco polled two more votes than South Africa, but FIFA engineered the results of the secret ballot, according to Ismail Bhamjee, a FIFA executive committee member. He was secretly taped claiming the process was corrupt. It was all a bit of a mess. Morocco were so burnt by the whole process that it has taken them almost a decade to put together another bid. But back they came for more.

Strangely, though, for a nation so used to the bidding process, Morocco had no website, no logo and no slogan for their latest proposal at the turn of the year. FIFA will want to see extensive evidence of planning given that this will be the first 48-team World Cup. The Moroccans have left their campaigning to the last minute, and high-profile ambassadors David Trezeguet, Lothar Matthaus, Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, and El Hadji Diouf will have their work cut out to spread the word and lobby support for what would be the biggest sporting event ever held on the African continent.

Andres Iniesta has also been roped in to drum up support for their candidacy. The delayed nature of Morocco’s bid makes one wonder if they are instead setting their sights on the 2030 tournament. It is, after all, hard to see FIFA awarding the Arab world back-to-back World Cups.

“Football competitions as big as the World Cup deserve to be in great places” — David Beckham, former England captain

The three-pronged North American bid, on the other hand, was launched in April 2017 and they have had greater time to harness support. They have used it wisely. They are making a big play on the fact they have ready-made stadiums, world-class infrastructure and high-class accommodation. They are also trying to appeal to the bean counters at FIFA by claiming their bid will set revenue records, generating
$14.3 billion (boosted by an average ticket price of $431), almost double Morocco’s offering of $7.2 billion.

“Money is one element (but) not the only element,” said Infantino earlier this month. Yet many of the 207 voting federations rely on the $1.5 million annual grant promised by FIFA over the next four years.

Morocco concede that their bid lacks the ticketing and hospitality muscle of a North American World Cup, but they are making a big play on the fact that a World Cup on their soil would be on the same time zone as western Europe and Africa, making it a more appealing option for big-paying broadcasters. While Mexico and Canada will host 10 games each in a widely spread North American offering, the Moroccans are trumpeting the fact that the host cities are located less than an hour’s drive from an airport, while the most remote host cities are separated by just 75 minutes, creating ideal travel logistics for both players and fans.

Morocco believe they have already mobilized plenty of key votes. The 14 members of the FIFA confederation in Oceania have pledged their backing, while the North Africans are counting on significant support from African and Asian nations. Kenya, South Africa, France, Spain, Belgium and Russia have all declared their backing for the bid.

The worry for Morocco will be the findings of FIFA’s recent evaluation report. Not a single brick has been laid in nine of their proposed 14 stadiums, while the others require significant makeovers. The North American bid, on the other hand, has 17 stadiums already in operation. The Moroccans would also need to get to work on their training centers, with more than half yet to be built.

Morocco should be able to get its stadiums and infrastructure up to scratch in time, but by having everything in place now, the North American bid has a significant head-start. However, these evaluation reports can largely be taken with a pinch of salt — after all, Qatar won the 2022 World Cup after scoring poorly for that tournament.

Bizarrely, Morocco might have an unlikely trump card in Donald, the US president, who some have claimed is damaging his own country’s bid and boosting the Moroccans’. His attempts to implement a travel ban on residents of six Muslim-majority countries will take some explaining by bid chiefs to FIFA. They will have cringed when Trump tweeted that it would be “a shame if countries we always support” opposed the US bid. “Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?” he wrote. Ouch.

Morocco and the US went head-to-head for the right to host the World Cup in 1994. The US won, but the voting was closer than many expected, with Morocco picking up three fewer votes than the US. Observers reckon it could be even closer this time.

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