Opinion | Fifa needs healthy 2026 bidding race to turn the page on past controversies

Back in December, Fifa president Gianni Infantino told a full house at the Globe Soccer Conference in Dubai of his support for the principle of joint bids to host the World Cup and his excitement that the United States, Canada and Mexico had joined forces and thrown their collective hat into the ring for the right to host the 2026 edition.

Although Infantino is well schooled in the diplomatic art of making statements and delivering answers designed to placate rather than offend, he made it clear that previous World Cups had resulted in too much waste in terms of underused stadia and infrastructure and that that the decision to award the hosting rights for two World Cups – 2018 and 2022 – at the same time had been a mistake.

Sustainability and transparency are the central pillars of World Cup bidding under Infantino, whose election was fuelled in part by a commitment to extend the World Cup to 48 nations, creating a competition whose scale would test the infrastructure of all but a tiny handful of nations.

But while that may be the reality, it was still something of a surprise that Infantino the diplomat was so openly supportive of joint bidding in public. The point is that the joint North and central American bid is not the only one on the table and its rival is from a single nation, claiming – as is inevitably the way – to represent the dreams of a continent – Africa.

The presidential predilection for joint hosting might make life even more difficult than it already is for the bid from Morocco, which plans to go it alone and seems to be starting the race way behind its rivals.

In January, the Moroccan bid announced it had hired Vero Communications – the consultancy which helped Qatar win hosting rights for 2022 World Cup, and Infantino in his bid for the presidency – as its lead consultant on international communications and strategy. They will help persuade FIFA members, who will vote en masse rather than leaving it to the 24 man executive committee – that Morocco’s vision of a welcoming, passionate and authentic World Cup is a better bet than the well-backed alternative where the majority of games will be played in the United States. The latter remains the world’s biggest consumer market, and the sport there needs a spur to regain some of the momentum built after the competition was played there in 1994.

Morocco is a late starter. At the time of writing it was difficult to access any details of its plans although that will clearly change in the weeks and months ahead. But it has been reported that Moroccan officials have not been so tardy in the essential work of meeting with voting members to put their case directly.

The big question is exactly what can they say to persuade the world that Morocco’s solo enterprise is worth a shot ahead of North America’s big guns.

Maybe the answer comes, unexpectedly, from outgoing US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who recently flagged a Gallup Poll showing the United States’ global standing has taken a pounding in many parts of the world with its approval rating plummeting from 48 per cent during the Obama administration to 30 per cent today. The downturn was evident in Canada and Mexico, its partners in the World Cup adventure.

Speaking at the United Soccer Coaches Convention he said: “This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all that – it’s about perceptions of America, and it’s a difficult time in the world. So, there’s only certain things we can control. We can’t control what happens at the 38th parallel in Korea, we can’t control what happens with embassies in Tel Aviv, and we can’t control what happens with climate change accords.”

Although most of us would love things to be different, sport and politics have always been inextricably linked and so long as they involve government funding or support of any kind its is likely they always will be. But it’s difficult to remember a sports leader referencing his own government’s policies as a potential obstacle in this way.

It remains to be seen whether Morocco will even attempt to surf this wave of negativity towards America as even a relatively successful campaign is likely to fall way short of delivering the numbers needed to win the Big Prize. 

Perhaps the surprise is that, given the prevailing sentiment towards joint bids for the 48 team World Cup, Morocco is going it alone. Couldn’t the African Confederation (CAF) come up with a joint bid which would help meet some of the new sustainability criteria? At least this would quell suspicions that Morocco – which has failed in the past– is simply going through the motions as a placeholder for future CAF bids.

In little more than five months, FIFA will have to decide whether either of the two current bids will make the grade.  If – and this is extremely unlikely – neither hits the sweet spot, the process can be re-opened, offering potential hosts from confederations not included in the original contest to come into play. 

That, of course, would be something of an embarrassment for the governing body, which has worked hard to create a process designed to avoid past issues and attract and reward the best bids to ensure the best host environment for the new-look World Cup. After Qatar 2022, this represents a chance to turn a page and it’s a chance which FIFA can’t afford to miss. 

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