By Andrew Warshaw in Moscow
June 12 – Whether it should be this way is a matter of debate. But in the modern world, commercial clout and the promise of safe, sophistated infrastructure invariably carry more weight than passion and legacy – as Morocco seem likely to find to their cost when the race to stage the 2026 World Cup reaches its denouement tomorrow.
Moroccan officials, who have stressed throughout their campaign how snatching the tournament from under the noses of the North American favourites will transform the landscape of their country, remain quietly confident they can upset the odds.
But in the final hours of lobbying in the Russian capital it was clear they faced another painful defeat after four previous attempts to land the tournament.
Both candidates made their final pitches to European FIFA members today and despite an impassioned plea by France to vote for its historic and cultural ally in Morocco, sources close to UEFA predicted most of their 54 members would go the other way.
It was the same scenario in Asia where China and India look likely to line up behind Morocco in the first ever public ballot with big-hitters Saudi Arabia pulling the strings in terms of a majority pro-United cartel.
Whether, in the end, the Donald Trump factor – indiscreet tweets, untimely comments et al – will end up having any major bearing on the result by stoking anti-American sentiment remains to be seen.
Morocco thinks it could but for his part UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said he was in no position to instruct his members how to vote. “I’m not pushing them one way or the other, they wouldn’t listen to me anyway! They are clever enough to decide on their own,” he told reporters after his confederation hosted both candidates.
The fact is that the joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the United States has been the front-runner from the moment the partnership was formed two years ago. Morocco, with some justification, point to far more palatable distances and travel times and believe they have significantly closed the gap.
Hence the reason why they are so strong-minded about the thorny issue of the four overseas US territories who Morocco believes should not be allowed to vote because of a conflict of interest.
As the ballot at Moscow’s Expocentre approached, FIFA, who insists the decision to vote or not rests with the FAs themselves, had made no decision – with the prospect of the entire row coming to a head at the Congress itself especially if it transpires that the ballot is likely to be on a knife-edge, though there were unconfirmed reports the four territories had themselves decided not to take part.
The north Africans have persistently cried foul at what they perceive as pro-United bias by the FIFA hierarchy and the group of technical experts that put United 2026 way out in front.
Yet that could be the decisive factor, along with the reality that 2026 will (probably) be the first finals to stage 48 teams. Morocco may not agree but the majority of FIFA’s voting members appear to be seeking the kind of guarantees (financial in particular) United 2026 are clearly better equipped to provide.
Although this time 207 FIFA federations will be voting, ignoring the recommendations of the technical experts, as happened in 2010 when Qatar emerged victorious for 2022, is a scenario the federations will take at their peril since this is an open ballot.
It is still by no means clear, however, exactly how FIFA will tell the world who each country voted for (electronically or otherwise) – or how long after the poll the individual preferences will be made public.
The key number is 104 but there is also the bizarre and unprecedented scenario where both bids get rejected.
“In the event that the 68th FIFA Congress decides not to choose either of the candidates, FIFA will then launch a new procedure by inviting all member associations – except the four that are taking part in the current process – to submit a bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup,” say FIFA’s bidding rules.
Stranger things have happened, goes the old saying. But none as strange as that.
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