FIFA has announced the schedule for the bid evaluation visits in the increasingly tense race to stage the 2026 World Cup.
As set out in the rules introduced after the controversies of the 2010 decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, the recommendations of the “bid evaluation task force” will go a long way to deciding if the joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States will be joined on the ballot by Morocco’s bid.
The American-led United bid was the hot favourite, thanks to its near guarantee of commercial success, choice of world-class venues and the opportunity to grow the game in the world’s richest market, but Morocco is gaining ground and could spring an upset, providing it can convince FIFA its bid is viable.
The five-strong task force — which includes the chairmen of FIFA’s audit and governance committees, as well as former Croatia and AC Milan star Zvonimir Boban, now FIFA’s deputy general secretary — will visit the United bid first.
They will start in Mexico City on April 9, travel to Atlanta a day later, then head north to Toronto and finish in New York on April 12-13. The Moroccan dates are Marrakech on April 16, then to Agadir the following day, up the coast to Tangier on April 18, before finishing in Casablanca a day later.
The purpose of the visits is to check on proposed venues, meet the bidding committees and clarify technical details.
Checking venues will be much easier in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., as the proposed venues already exist. In fact, Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca has already staged World Cup finals in 1970 and 1986.
Morocco’s offer, on the other hand, will require more imagination, as the plan is to expand existing stadiums in Marrakech and Tangier and build new venues in Agadir and Casablanca. Marrakech would also get one of the five proposed “modular” stadiums that can be taken down and used elsewhere after the tournament.
But if the United bid offers certainty in terms of venues, there are logistical concerns in hosting a tournament in three countries, as the task force should notice as they spend nearly seven hours on planes between the four cities.
The Moroccan bid, however, has more to offer than relative compactness. It will be keen to impress upon FIFA the passion of its football-mad population, its World Cup-inspired development plans and a friendly time zone for European fans.
But its best card is Donald Trump. The U.S. president’s rhetoric and actions have managed to upset a growing coalition of countries and anti-American sentiment could swing it for Morocco.
Earlier this week, the Moroccan bid was backed by the governments of Dominica and Saint Lucia, despite the Caribbean islands being from the same confederation as Canada, Mexico and the U.S., while on Thursday the French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet told the L’Equipe newspaper he would be voting for Morocco, too.
The geopolitics go both ways, of course, as U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro demonstrated when he tweeted about his meeting with Saudi football officials on Tuesday.
The final choice, assuming the bids are approved by the task force and signed off by the FIFA Council, will be made by all of the member associations at the pre-World Cup Congress in Moscow on June 13.