How Trump May Be Helping Morocco's Soccer World Cup Bid

How Trump May Be Helping Morocco's Soccer World Cup Bid

Fans of Morocco show their support prior to the International Friendly soccer match between Morocco and Serbia. Morocco won 2-1.

SourceNicolò Campo/Getty

Why you should care

This North African country’s bid is receiving unexpected support — and Donald Trump may be responsible. 

There are few geopolitical tussles in which the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia holds as much sway as global powers like China, Brazil or Germany. But the decision about which country hosts the soccer World Cup is one of them.

In Moscow on June 13 — the eve of the opening match in the 2018 tournament — members of FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, will select the hosts of the 2026 competition. The choice is between a powerhouse joint bid from the U.S., 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, toward U.S. President Donald Trump.

The future of FIFA is not dependent on, but it is linked to, having the right vote [in technical terms] for 2026.

a FIFA top executive

The vote will be scrutinized as much for its conduct as the eventual winner. The decision will set the future direction of FIFA, as it seeks to escape the corruption scandal that briefly threatened its existence and undermined the award of the last two tournaments. Several of the FIFA board members who voted in 2010 to give this year’s World Cup to Russia and the 2022 edition to Qatar were later implicated in wrongdoing. As a result FIFA introduced reforms designed to clean up the organization and the horse-trading that blighted previous votes.

“The bidding process … has been designed to evaluate the bids against objective criteria,” says a FIFA spokesperson, “and so avoid a return to the secret and subjective decisions of the past.”

Each of its more than 200 member nations will cast a vote, with 104 needed for victory. It is a decision taken by sports administrators, but one that 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 percent.” Yet when this was put to Lyndon Cooper, president of the St. Lucia Football Association, who will cast his country’s vote in Moscow, he says: “No determination has been made. We will support the one [bid] that will benefit our country, our people and our sport.”

The confusion adds to the sense that the North American bid — the overwhelming favorite 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 U.S. 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. Others argue the opposite is true, and that members may seek to punish the U.S. 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 percent of FIFA’s revenues — you have to question why the bidding process exists at all.”

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When the joint U.S., 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 time zone better suited to European and Asian TV markets. But the 2026 tournament, the first to feature 48 teams rather than 32, making it more expensive, would appear to favor the U.S.-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 $14 billion 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 U.S. 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,” Cordeiro says. “The economic side is not everything, but it’s not unimportant either.”

By contrast, Morocco has proposed a $3 billion stadium construction plan, to build nine new venues including a 93,000-seat stadium in Casablanca at an estimated cost of $400 million. The government-backed plan involves a total of $15.8 billion 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 modernization plans.

Morocco predicts a profit of $5 billion, 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.”

Hicham el-Amrani, chief executive of the Morocco 2026 bid, says a vote for his country would be a “historic choice” to prove to other emerging nations that they can host global mega-events, particularly at a time when many cities and countries appear unwilling to take on the escalating costs of staging them.

“The World Cup is not only about the size of a nation or its economic maturity,” el-Amrani says. “It’s about much more than that. It has a much bigger role.”

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Senior figures in soccer suggest the United bid has strong support across North and South America, representing 45 votes. But they add that Morocco will score well with its fellow African nations, which provide 54 votes, and could expect support from parts of Asia, and even European countries with which it has links, such as France.

Anxiety over the strength of the Moroccan bid has seen Trump lash out on Twitter. “It would be a shame,” he tweeted last month, “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 U.N.)?”

Later, speaking at a press conference with Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, Trump appeared to link support for the U.S.-led bid with future trade deals. “I hope all African countries and countries throughout the world, that we also will be supporting you, and that they will likewise support us in our bid along with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup,” he said. “We will be watching very closely and any help that they could give us in that bid, we would appreciate.”

FIFA declined to comment on whether Trump’s comments breach its rules against political interference in the bidding process. The North American bid team insist they do not but it may prove counterproductive, with senior soccer industry figures saying the U.S. president is a drag on his country’s efforts.

One senior Asian soccer official says Islamic nations are concerned with the U.S. administration’s push to introduce an immigration ban on some Muslim-majority countries. This is a view echoed in Europe with one former soccer official saying: “A lot of people are unhappy with the U.S., it’s the Trump thing.”

But Cordeiro says: “I’ve not been in a single meeting where a [FIFA member] president has said to me that they’re not going to vote for us because of what [Trump] said or didn’t say.”

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering by major powers could yet impact the vote, however. Russian officials have pledged their support to Morocco. One senior European soccer executive says Russia is likely to lobby nations within its “orbit of influence.”

“I find it very hard to believe the North American bid will win in Moscow,” he says. “The Russians are not going to be happy with that.”

In response, the North American bid last month released higher projections of profits than previously expected. It also pledged visas for officials, fans and players to the event regardless of their religion or national origin, an apparent nod to concerns over Trump’s proposed travel ban.

It also overhauled its bid team, replacing Sunil Gulati, the former U.S. Soccer Federation chief, with three co-chairs, one from each of the bidding countries in a move seen as pushing Canada and Mexico further into the spotlight and making it appear less like a U.S.-focused bid.

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FIFA insists that neither Gianni Infantino, the president who faces re-election next year, nor any other senior officials have a preferred bidder. “The FIFA president is not involved in this process and he will not take part in the vote of the congress,” says a spokesperson for the organization.

But the United bid offers a substantial windfall for FIFA, an organization that suffered an annual loss of $191.5 million in 2017, partly related to legal costs over the bribery investigations. Miguel Maduro, a former FIFA governance official brought in after the scandal, says his experience suggests there is a link between “the need to gather financial resources with the World Cup and the political survival of the president of FIFA.”

Separately there is concern that Morocco may yet be excluded from the race altogether, after it expressed concern that FIFA updated regulations 48 hours before final bids were submitted in March. This included a requirement that host cities must have a population of 250,000 or more, which would exclude the city of Ouarzazate, where a new stadium is planned.

Each bid will be scored on a 0 to 5 scale by FIFA’s inspection task force. Any nation that falls short on two points of key criteria — stretching from stadiums to quality of media facilities — will be excluded. The results of the tests are expected within the next few days, although executives close to the FIFA leadership say they would be stunned if Morocco was barred from proceeding to the final vote.

One of FIFA’s most senior executives insists the North American bid remains the favorite. But he adds: “Overall, if the task force report is clear [that there is] an overwhelmingly better candidate, in terms of money and technical specifications, and they still lose, then what’s the point of the reforms?”

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By Murad Ahmed

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