The football World Cup, the most popular single-sport festival ever invented, has bypassed the Arabic-speaking world for most of its first century of existence. All of a sudden, there is the possibility, two in succession will be staged there.
Morocco’s candidacy to host the 2026 edition, immediately after Qatar 2022, caught the favourites, the combined North American bidders for 2026 a little by surprise when it was announced on Friday.
The task for the North African nation now is to go further than simply act as a vehicle to shake the front-runners out of any complacency. The joint US-Mexico-Canada bid, promising vast territory for the first, expanded 48-country tournament, appeals to Fifa and the 200-plus voters who decide on the venue, but Morocco has plenty to recommend itself.
There is certainly experience in the process of World Cup bidding. The 2026 bid will be Morocco’s fifth attempt to convince the international football community that an African state, culturally allied to the Middle East and geographically close to southern Europe is a logical place to take the spectacle.
Morocco were beaten by France for the 1998 hosting rights and by South Africa to a 2010 tournament designated by Fifa as Africa’s by right. In both cases the Moroccan case gathered an encouraging support.
Not that those numbers can be considered without scepticism. Investigations into how votes were influenced in the lead up to several of the recent awards of host-status have revealed a raft of corrupt practices and left Fifa stained and damaged.
Morocco has its own questions to answer about its viability as a host. In 2015 the country was scheduled to host the Africa Cup of Nations, and withdrew citing concerns about the Ebola virus, which was then endangering lives in West Africa; some affected countries had been due to send teams to the 2015 Nations Cup.
The continent took a dim view of Morocco’s reneging on the project, although bridges have been mended since and Morocco has offered itself as an alternative, short-notice host for the 2019 Nations Cup should Cameroon, the designated host, struggle with the challenge of staging a Nations Cup now swelled to 24 teams rather than 16.
Morocco can undertake that because it has the infrastructure and the stadiums. There are already six arenas, in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Fes, Marrakesh and Agadir with capacities of 45,000 or over to comply with Fifa World Cup requirements.
For an 80-match World Cup, which is what the tournament will mean from 2026 onwards, billions more would need to be spent on new and redeveloped stadia in addition.
Morocco hosted the Fifa Club World Cup in 2013 and 2014 and Gianni Infantino, the world governing body’s president, last year declared Morocco “capable, in terms of infrastructure and organisation, of hosting a World Cup” though he did not specify a date.
The 2026 tournament bid is restricted to nations outside the European and Asian Confederations because their members, Russia and Qatar respectively, will host the preceding editions, in 2018 and 2022.
It is support from Europe and Asia that Morocco will need in the complicated, very political lobbying that lies ahead.
Ahmad Ahmad, the new president of CAF, the African Confederation which has 54 Fifa Congress votes, has urged his members to unite behind Morocco and the Moroccans hope the country’s accession to the African Union earlier this year will persuade heads of state across the continent to endorse the bid.
The Asian Confederation, which includes the Gulf states, has 46 votes. Uefa, which covers Europe, meanwhile carries 55 Fifa Congress votes, and the US-Mexico-Canada bid expects the majority of those to back their candidacy.
But Morocco can put forward some strong arguments. A World Cup there would slot more kindly into a time zone friendly to European television audiences, and it would certainly be closer to travel to for supporters of the 16 European teams taking part.
The convenience of fans may not always seem a priority for Fifa’s executives, but World Cups are nothing without them.
By: Ian Hawkey/The National