The potentially petty politics behind Morocco’s failed World Cup bid

When FIFA was hit with a crisis of spy-novel dimensions after the World Cup hosting rights of 2018 and 2022 were awarded under a cloud of corruption in 2010, the federation rejigged its voting format. Pre-crisis voting was done by a 24-man executive committee that comprised the FIFA president and representatives from the five confederations. Post-crisis, all the 207 member nations had the right to vote, with the exception of bidding nations. This move that was supposed to remove the probability of rabid corruption, however, opened up the process to politics, because what used to be secret ballot systen was made open.

So, when Morocco lost the bid to host the 2026 World Cup by 134 to 65 votes to the U.S. led three-nation bid that included Canada and Mexico—Ghana abstained from voting—African countries that voted against the underdog were immediately apparent: Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from COSAFA region; and Benin, Cape Verde, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from the West African Football Union (WAFU). Considering how slim Morocco’s chances already were against the North American juggernaut, its inability to secure the entirety of the African bloc was a sure path to failure. Since Morocco is part of the African Union (AU)—formerly known as the Organisation of African Unity—despite the name change, unity within the union should have been assured.

Morocco is a recent member of the AU. It joined the union a year ago, 33 years after it left the continental body because Polisario Front, which was fighting for independence of the Western Sahara (officially the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), was accepted in to the AU. For the period of its exile, Morocco was the only African country that wasn’t part of the AU. So when it joined after the active campaign of King Mohammed VI, it was welcomed by various members of the union, including the foreign minister of Western Sahara, Mohamed Salem Oud Salek, who said Morocco’s readmission was a “positive step for the people of Western Sahara.”

During the vote to determine Morocco’s fate in the AU, nine countries from southern Africa—except Swaziland—voted against its joining the union, primarily due to issues about the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Since South Africa has always been an antagonist of the North African country, it was no surprise that it voted, again, against its World Cup bid. Morocco, too, had voted against South Africa in her bid to host the 2006 finals, which was hosted by Germany. Once the countries in the Southern region of the continent are however accounted for, what could be the reason for countries from WAFU voting against Morocco?

In the years leading to its bid to join the AU, Morocco had struck economic deals across East Africa with countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia. This was the wake of the Arab Spring, and the continent was particularly interested in the economic integration of Morocco because it had lost the financial clout Muhmmar Gaddafi of Libya brought to the union as its major financier. It had become reliant on foreign handouts and was looking for ways to regain some economic independence. After the vote, Morocco has also struck deals with Nigeria, one of the three power houses—alongside South Africa and Algeria—that are still in full support of Sahrawi self-determination. If Morocco was opening itself up to the rest of the continent in this manner, perhaps other West-African countries should have lobbied stronger, through their FAs, for deals with Morocco rather than openly go against its bid to host the World Cup.

In the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola crisis, Morocco had asked for the 2015 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) to be postponed, and later refused to go ahead with hosting it as earlier planned. The Ebola epidemic primarily struck West African countries and, before Morocco’s withdrawal, had affected the qualifying matches that involved Sierra Leone and Guinea. The competition eventually held in Equitorial Guinea. Therefore, it isn’t inconceivable that Morocco’s pulling out is behind the actions of the WAFU countries. Such petty motivations aren’t unheard of in the family of nations.

But there is another potential motivating factor in the World Cup votes, one that overrides any geo-political grouse: money. U.S. Soccer’s president, Carlos Cordeiro, had said the competition hosted by U.S., Canada and Mexico will be “the most successful and profitable FIFA World Cup ever,” with projected revenues of $14 billion and profits for FIFA of nearly $11 billion. If it were hosted in Morocco, the World Cup was projected to have a profit of $5 billion. (For context, projected revenue for the cycle that involves the 2022 World Cup in Quatar is $6.56 billion.)  Now, FIFA President Gianni Infantino campaigned for election to the position with the promise of giving more money back to member associations. The mathematics here is simple: given the same 207 denominator, 14 billion trumps 5 billion.

Before the 2010 crisis, the voting committee considered aspects of the World Cup beyond the commercial appeal. But now that the process has been thrown open, the technical fidelity that a small number of voters would bring is lost to the multitude of voting nations and interests. Politics might have been a factor in Morocco losing its 2026 hosting bid, but in the end, it’s all about the money.