- Morocco says tournament would generate $7.2bn in revenues and a $5bn profit
- Country proposes a more ‘compact’ World Cup with every city within 550km of Casablanca
- Hosting plan would require nine new venues and five to be renovated
When the Fifa Congress meets on 13 June to decide the host of the 2026 World Cup, it’s hard to know how much the vote will be influenced by the technical or commercial merits of each bid.
It was ever thus, some would argue, but Fifa’s decision to take the ballot away from its 22-person executive committee and place it in the hands of its 207 national associations has created a new dynamic in the race to host the World Cup, turning the contest into a political battle as much as one that carefully weighs up the competencies of each contender.
In the governing body’s worst imaginings, changes that were motivated by the need for greater transparency in the host selection process threaten to deliver a result with all the credibility of the Eurovision song contest, where tactical voting and old alliances tend to take precedence over any notion of good sense and taste.
The difficulty of calling the race has not been helped by Donald Trump’s attempts to intimidate countries into voting for the joint bid presented by the United States, Mexico and Canada, nor by the early pronouncements from the South African, St Lucian and Dominican federations about how they intend to vote.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino is believed to favour the United 2026 bid but in recent months the view has taken hold that the new voting system gives Morocco a live chance. Provided it can make it to the final vote (there is still a slim possibility that Fifa might try to exclude it on a technicality beforehand) the North African nation ought to be able to count on support from the 55-strong African confederation and a proportion of Asian countries to get it close to the 104-vote majority needed to secure the event.
Hicham El Amrani, chief executive of the Morocco 2026 campaign and a former head of the Confederation of African Football, thinks his country has a better chance of winning than on any of the four previous occasions it has bid for the tournament. But he insists the decision will come down to the country’s hosting capabilities rather than any political horse trading.
“African countries are not going to support us just because we are on the same continent but because they buy into the project,” he says in a presentation to the media in a restaurant overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar in the historic port of Tangier. He adds that a successful Moroccan bid would “send a message of confidence, of trust, into the African continent”.
Morocco doesn’t pretend to be able to compete with the stadium infrastructure or commercial potential of the United bid. It proposes a more intimate, pared-down World Cup – and to use football as a catalyst to speed up the country’s development goals.
A media tour of the country that stops in Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangier and Rabat appears designed to emphasise the compact nature of the bid (all of the cities in the bid are within a 550km radius of its main port, Casablanca) and to challenge assumptions about how far it has already come in terms of achieving those development goals. The decision, for instance, to drive the 244km from the airport in Casablanca to Marrakesh, the second stop on the tour, allows the press contingent to travel on the network of toll roads that currently connect ten out of the twelve potential host cities and stadium locations within the bid.
The following day, a connecting flight between Marrakesh and Tangier takes the media through the brand new 67,000m2 terminal at Marrakesh-Menara airport, inaugurated in time for the country’s hosting of the COP22 climate conference in 2016 and which has capacity for nine million passengers a year.
“When you look at Morocco in 2003 when we were bidders for the fourth time, and the Morocco of today, the country has seen very important structural changes and a steady development,” says El Amrani. He explains that the country’s GDP has doubled in that time, its motorway network has more than tripled and its airport and hotel capacity has increased two and a half times over. The Moroccan Ministry of Tourism reports that the country hosted 11.3 million tourists in 2017, ranking first in Africa in terms of arrivals and almost tripling the equivalent figure for 2003.
The statistics have given the country the confidence that it is ready to go from hosting lower-tier football tournaments like the Africa Cup of Nations and the Fifa Club World Cup and take a tilt at the big event.
To persuade the national associations that it is ready to make the next step, El Amrani appreciates that he will have to talk a good commercial game. He joins the media tour having just returned from the AIPS (Association of Sports Press) Congress in Belgium where he unveiled Morocco’s bid and engaged in an early skirmish with his rivals. At the conference, the United 2026 bid appealed to the commercial instincts of the 207 voting associations by promising a World Cup that would deliver $14bn of revenues and $11bn of profit to the Fifa coffers. El Amrani responded by telling an AIPS journalist that Morocco 2026 would deliver twice the revenues of South Africa and Brazil, the 2010 and 2014 hosts.
Back in Morocco, the bid leader goes into greater detail about his commercial projections. He claims that the North African country’s more conservative promise of $7.2bn of revenues and a $5bn profit is closer to Fifa’s own estimate that an expanded 48-team tournament could generate around $6.5bn in revenues.
The $7.2bn figure, compiled by the Roland Berger consultancy and Keneo marketing agency, anticipates that the country’s location in the ‘sweet spot’ time-zone spanning Europe and Africa would lead to media rights revenues of $3.2bn. “Pretty much all of Fifa’s broadcast rights in Europe and Africa have still to be sold, and all of Africa has still to be sold, and the time-zone we’re in here just works so much better for those two key territories,” says a figure associated with the bid. “We know we can’t match them [United 26] on ticket revenues or stadium capacity, but that broadcast sweet spot really works for us.”
The US bid predicts $5.2bn of media revenues, including a $300m bonus to Fifa via contracts already negotiated with American broadcasters Fox and Telemundo. The latter point has led to accusations that the governing body has a conflict of interest over the destination of the 2026 World Cup and increased suspicions that it favours a United 2026 win.
Sponsorship and ticketing
The remainder of Morocco’s revenue projection is made up of $3bn of marketing revenues and $1.1bn in ticketing, which compare with $3.64bn of sponsorship and $4bn of match day revenues projected by United 2026.
El Amrani says his bid is ‘100 per cent guaranteed’ by the Moroccan government, to reassure Fifa that it is not dependent on sponsorship and private sector investment to organise the tournament, but he stresses that the bid does not lack corporate support.
“We already have support from the private sector, but at the moment it’s a kind of goodwill or symbolic support,” he says. “All the major corporations within Morocco, but also within the region of Africa and beyond, wrote to the bid to commit to the support about this World Cup, whether in terms of [being] national sponsors, whether in terms of the different technical support that they could bring, depending on their expertise, and the business category.
“Of course, global corporations are interested because they know the value the tournament will offer, especially when you consider the types of TV audiences we could reach and the reach around the world in terms of market.”
Should the United 2026 bid be successful, El Amrani contends that it might struggle to deliver on its marketing promises given that the 2026 tournament would be competing for sponsorship dollars with the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. He adds that Fifa’s overheads in hosting the tournament in North Africa would be lower ($2.3bn versus $3bn for the United 2026 bid) because of the lower cost of living in the country and because its public authorities promise to provide all the competition and training venues for free. By contrast, the governing body would have to pay to rent privately-owned stadiums in the United bid.
The number, size and quality of Morocco’s venues and training facilities, however, and the amount of construction work that would be required to prepare them to host a World Cup, also provide the biggest question mark against the bid. The country says it would have to invest $3bn building nine new stadiums and renovating five existing stadiums to meet Fifa’s requirement for 14 venues (the governing body then selects 12 from that figure).
Eager to play down the perception the country might be lumbered with expensive white elephants, El Amrani stresses that this $3bn figure includes $0.6bn of construction work on three new stadiums that would proceed regardless of the success of the bid. This includes the 93,000 capacity Grande Stade de Casablanca that would host the final, and Moroccan national team games in perpetuity, and on which construction work has already begun.
The remaining six new-build stadiums would be constructed using a ‘legacy modular’ design. Such an approach, in which shared basic elements are overlaid with different cosmetic finishes and removable elements would, El Amrani claims, allow the stadiums to be built at a reduced cost and then downsized after the event.
“We are building stadiums that will have a minimum required capacity of 40,000 to host the Fifa matches but that capacity will be reduced afterwards to a capacity that fits the needs of the community in eight years’ time” he says.
“That [capacity] will go down to 25,000 or 20,000 and the space that we gain from the reduction of those seats allows us to create an additional multi-functional space with basketball fields, athletic tracks and so on, so that we want to transform the ability, by hosting the World Cup, to use the stadium not only as a football place where we play the national league, but as a space open 365 days a year with different sports, entertainments, concerts and shows.”
The bid proposes reusing the seats that are removed from the venues in ten other stadium refurbishment projects in Morocco and ten projects in the wider Africa region. “If you ask me which ones, we are not able to share, nor have we discussed with any of those countries, simply because we need to be compliant with the Fifa’s ethical standards because it might appear that we are trying to favour a vote in exchange,” El Amrani explains.
The different amounts of work required to renovate the five pre-existing stadiums in the bid is demonstrated by visits to the Stade Ibn Batouta in Tangier and the Grand Stade de Marrakech. The former was designed to be easily reconfigured to accommodate an additional 20,000 seats, but for the latter the running track would need to be excavated to deliver the required 60,000 capacity. In both grounds the bid would need to add a minimum number of ‘sky boxes’ to meet Fifa’s hospitality requirements.
A further 69 training facilities would be needed to host a World Cup, but as with the new stadiums, the bid would prefer to spin this as a positive. The new football infrastructure, they argue, would help to professionalise the facilities for teams playing in the Botola – the country’s top-tier football league – and build on the passion for football in the country. A study by the French polling agency IFOP claims that 84 per cent of Moroccans are interested in football and 81 per cent are strongly in favour of hosting the World Cup.
“Fifa or the Congress can always decide to keep giving those major competitions to a closed group of nations that can organise it today, but we know how important the social role of a World Cup is,” says El Amrani.
“Giving a World Cup to a host is not only about having the biggest possible stadiums in the world, or the biggest ticketing revenues in the world, it is about the values, it’s about the impact in the long run and giving opportunities to other countries that have done the minimum required.”
The development argument has been heard before – not least in the case of South Africa’s bid in 2010 – but there are tangible signs of Morocco’s determination to build on its football and sports economy and use the World Cup as a rallying point for its wider development goals. Evidence of construction work can be seen dotted along the country’s new network of highways and is concentrated in landmark national projects like the Tangier terminal for a new high-speed rail service, which is nearing completion as the press visit on the second day of the trip.
The final leg of the tour drops in on the construction site for the Maamoura National Centre for Football near Rabat – a project that includes 7,881m2 of covered pitches, a hotel and lodgings for national and youth teams, in addition to a sports medicine centre. The MAD 350m (€31m/$37m) is going ahead whether the World Cup campaign is successful or not.
“There’s a lot of ambition in Morocco, there are resources, so now you have to have the strategy and the philosophy to improve things for the future,” says former Southampton manager Mark Wotte, who joined the Royal Moroccan Football Federation and has worked at the centre as its performance director since 2015. “I think the World Cup would give an extra boost to football in Morocco and its strategy to become one of the best countries In Africa.”
Putting aside the political alliances, this ought to be the crux of the vote on 13 June. If Fifa is serious about the objectives laid out in the Fifa 2.0 roadmap to grow the game and introduce football to new participants and regions would it be better to reap the greater commercial dividends of the United 2026 bid and redistribute them evenly throughout the football world, or take the tournament to Morocco and use it as a springboard deliver on those development goals in a more concentrated way?
The governing body has divested a great deal of responsibility in its member associations, assuming of course that it allows Morocco to appear on the final ballot at all. Off the record, figures associated with the bid talk of the Fifa taskforce ‘moving goalposts’ and introducing new requirements that appeared to favour the United campaign in the days leading up to the bid book submission. A small chance remains that the five-man Fifa task force, which has already visited Morocco twice, might decide to exclude the country when it reports back on its inspections on 28th or 29th May.
“Things can move in a campaign, but we are confident because of the feedback we got from the task force,” says El Amrani. “We’ve provided every single requirement in the bid book, in addition to some information that Fifa has asked us to clarify later on – we did that and we feel confident about going to the vote in Moscow on 13 June.
“The key thing for us – once the reform was made of transferring the power of deciding the host from the Executive Committee setting to the Congress – was to be able to move the vote from their 20 to 24 votes to the 207 votes of the member associations. We want to make sure that that mandate doesn’t come down to the five-person task force.”