World Cup 2026: How FIFA got caught between a rock and a hard place
Paul Hyland explains why the race to host the 2026 World Cup should have no clear favourite.
Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
At FIFA Congress on June 13, a battle between two polar extremes will reach a climax.
A day before the World Cup kicks off in anger in Russia, the destination of the 2026 tournament will be decided with only two candidates vying for the privilege: a joint bid between Canada, Mexico and the USA, and a single bid from Morocco.
The USA bid is everything the Morocco bid is not. It’s slick, it’s professional, it’s well-prepared.
If needed, the three countries together could host the tournament tomorrow, with all the necessary stadia, hotels and transport links already in place eight years before a ball is kicked.
They can also boast experience of hosting precisely this tournament, with the USA hosting in 1994 and Mexico hosting in 1970 and 1986, respectively.
Morocco’s bid is characteristic of a new kid on the block: a shot at an upsetting of the applecart.
Its approach has been slapdash–the Morocco bid did not even have a logo until this February–and concerns have been raised over the country’s ability to have all of its facilities ready in time.
But who could resist the sheer romance of the relatively unfancied Moroccans taking on the economic clout of the USA and winning? Especially in the present political climate?
So what exactly is wrong with the North American bid, first of all?
Well, let’s start with the sporting side. The original plan was for 60 of the 80 matches at the World Cup to be played within the USA with Mexico and Canada sharing a paltry ten each, all of which would take place in the group stages.
The plan, which met with reasonable scepticism from the Mexican Football Federation, was revised when the official bid was submitted earlier this year but not by much.
Now Canada and Mexico will have the chance to host one knockout game each. However, every single game from the quarter-finals onwards is due to be played in the USA.
Mexico’s wonderful Estadio Azteca, which has already borne witness to iconic moments, from the collective beauty of Brazil’s demolition of Italy in the 1970 final, to the individual guile of Maradona’s (literally) single-handed defeat of England in the 1986 quarter-final, will have no part to play after the Round of 16.
In addition, the services of its football-mad local supporters will no longer be needed. Nor will the total newcomer in Canada have much chance to announce itself after a USA-centric tournament will make sure that its contribution is swiftly forgotten.
True, FIFA’s masterstroke of increasing the World Cup to a 48-team tournament means that countries will need to share hosting duties with their neighbours more often.
But America doesn’t seem in much of a sharing mood. They want to be at the epicentre of a sport they’ve never really had much love for, for reasons you suspect are probably not sporting.
Everyone knows that the knockout stages and final are the most-watched events at any major tournament. The most-viewed ever TV event in most countries is usually the most recent World Cup final. But the expanded tournament format increases the economic burden on countries wanting to host a World Cup: it makes more demands on a nation’s infrastructure and sporting facilities.
So how to mitigate the economic impact of hosting a World Cup, while inflating whatever economic benefit it might bring? Simple. Give your neighbours the relatively unprofitable task of hosting the early rounds, then take over just as soon as the tournament gets interesting (read: lucrative).
The bid could hardly encapsulate burgeoning American exceptionalism if it donned a cap and wig and pledged to make the World Cup great again.
Playing the Trump card
By 2026 the dystopia of a Trump presidency will be long past, barring the sort of constitutional change you couldn’t put it past the world’s first tele-president trying to push through.
But this still concerns him. The official bid for a three-nation World Cup was announced in April 2017, three months into his term. Never not one to make it all about him, Trump climbed atop his favourite pedestal to warn other countries of the consequences “were they to lobby against the U.S bid”. It saft to assume, of course, that “U.S. bid” was a Freudian slip.
“Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations?)” he asked, semi-rhetorically threatening the withdrawal of aid from any country whose football associations would prevent the USA hosting most of a World Cup.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame 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 United Nations)?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2018
Though the tournament will not be played during a Trump presidency, its host will be announced during it.
A presidency not even halfway through its lifespan, which campaigned to prohibit all Muslims from entering the country, which has already dismantled the Iran nuclear deal, and even pledged to build a border wall to curb immigration from one of the countries it proposes to host a tournament alongside.
If Trump’s threats work and the USA is announced as the main host of the 2026 World Cup, watch him proclaim it as a victory for his administration, exactly how Russia are all too happy to use this year’s tournament to present itself as a modern, international power, far away from its flailing economy, deep ambivalence to human rights and various doping fiascoes.
Those of us who see how the next two World Cups are a form of soft power for unsavoury governments will scarcely want to see it become three in a row.
So who wouldn’t cheer on the underdog? How could anyone not want Morocco to take on the established order, the economic heavyweights of the USA and win?
Well, that might not be much better. Morocco is a country chronically under-prepared to host a World Cup.
The infrastructure to accommodate and transport the number of supporters descending on North American in 2026 already exists. In Morocco, that same infrastructure would cost an estimated £12 billion. Every single stadium would require renovation or building from the ground up.
FIFA have already warned the Moroccan bid against the implementation of pipedreams in their campaign to host the World Cup. Yet experience shows that the World Cup often is nothing other than a white elephant for developing economies.
South Africa’s expenditure on the 2010 World Cup was more than tenfold its original budget, coming in at about $3.8 billion. Some of this was spent on obvious, sustainable improvements such as roads and public transport. But the vast majority of added infrastructure are completely flash-in-the-pan.
South Africa spent over £1 billion building five brand new football stadia, which eight years after the continent’s first tournament, have fallen into disuse.
The 55,000 all-seater Cape Town stadium, built for £415 million in 2009, is shared by local clubs Ajax Cape Town and Cape Town City. Those clubs currently average home attendances of 8300 and 5600 spectators respectively this season. No wonder there have been so many recent calls for the stadium to be demolished.
It’s hard to see how the story wouldn’t be the same in Morocco, where the 2026 World Cup final is proposed to take place in a newly built 93,000 seater stadium to replace the country’s largest arena: the Stade Mohammed V, which accommodates 67,000 spectators.
Its current tenants are Raja Casablanca, whose supporters still fill less than a third, with an average attendance of 15,000 for the ongoing Moroccan league season. So if there’s anything the local economy in Casablanca just isn’t crying out for, it’s an enormous football arena that might outlive its usefulness after the World Cup final.
Nor does it particularly need to divert national economic reserves into building the number of hotels needed to accommodate the number of supporters who would arrive in Morocco for the tournament, at an estimated cost of around £2.38 billion.
Given that there has been no observable long-term increase in tourism from hosting World Cup tournaments, it sounds like even more fodder for the white elephant in the room, hardly a sound investment for the country with only the world’s 147th highest GDP per capita.
Rights and wrongs
The Moroccan FA also quite conveniently omitted the fact that homosexuality is still illegal in that country.
FIFA haven’t traditionally cared, having handed the next two tournaments where LGBT rights are practically prohibited.
You might remember the famous anecdote of disgraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggesting that the best way for gay and trans supporters to enjoy the Qatar World Cup was simply to not go. Anyone caught at a Moroccan tournament engaging in any form of homosexual activity could be imprisoned for up to three years.
Ritzau Scanpix/Anders Kjaerbye/via REUTERS
President of the Moroccan Association for Human rights, told the Associated Press last month that, “Morocco’s human rights report presented to the FIFA is an intentional silence on an issue that Morocco knows too well is a crime on its soil.
“It is evident that if Morocco was to host the World Cup, LGBT people coming to watch the games will face a lot of discrimination. The state will not be able to protect them nor will it be able to commit in preventing measures that could be taken against them by both the state and society.” In other words, it’s a bid that could help to impoverish its own citizens, and imprison others.
How did we end up here?
The expanded tournament format would always provide a huge challenge to all but the world’s biggest economies. But the World Cup rotation policy: where the tournament will take a tour of different continents on a rolling basis, has caused a perfect storm.
It means the tournament goes less frequently to countries most equipped to host them – usually those in Western Europe – and more frequently to countries who could do without the economic strain of organising a 48-team World Cup.
It also makes it harder to prevent the tournament being hosted by countries where not all fans should feel safe. Russia, Qatar and Morocco are three good examples.
So when the announcement is made on June 13th, I won’t meet it with the outrage I felt when Russia were handed this year’s tournament in 2010, or when a wonderful Australian bid was ignored in favour of a human rights abusive gulf state who are set to host it in 2022. I’ll meet it with a shrug, a nod, and I’ll get on with it.
Because what difference does it make if World Cup becomes another Trumpist tool of soft power or an albatross around the neck of yet another economy? How did we ever get to this point?