“Even before the process began it was biased”

2026 FIFA World Cup Candidature Committee Press Conference.
Photo: Steve Menary. 

01.03.2018

By Steve Menary
The North American bid has taken clear lead in front of Morocco’s before the FIFA decision on the World Cup 2026 hosting. For weighty financial and political reasons, FIFA seems strongly in favour of an American world cup.

The next stage in FIFA’s torturous and increasingly cynical procurement of a host for the 2026 World Cup arrives on March 16, when bid books are lodged by the two bidders, Morocco and a North American team led by the USA and including Canada and Mexico.

The winner will be decided at FIFA’s congress on June 13 and as the process continues, evidence is growing of increasing FIFA bias towards the North American bid.

Bidding was restricted to countries outside of the two regions, Europe and Asia, which will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

With the tiny Oceania region too small to bid and South America expected to get the 2030 World Cup, only CONCACAF and Africa were in the running and the North American bid declared early, back in December 2016.

At FIFA’s congress in Bahrain last year the idea of allowing the US-led bid a one-year period of exclusivity was even discussed. This met with some opposition, understood to be from representatives from Confederation of African Football (CAF) and UEFA.

The idea was rejected but was the first of many indications of influence on the bid process.

Morocco, which has made four previous bids for the World Cup, could not declare its intention to bid until after the exclusivity motion was defeated and subsequently said little.

When it did, the Africans found a bid book solely in English yet FIFA’s statutes say the organisation has four official languages: English, French, German and Spanish.

“Even before the process began it was biased,” says one experienced international football insider. “Expanding the World Cup to 48 teams was another bias and a way to make sure that no-one else could bid but North America.”

That expansion to 48 teams was one of a raft of reforms introduced by Gianni Infantino after the new FIFA president took office in 2016.

To avoid the bid rigging that dogged previous World Cups, FIFA is also allowing all of its members to vote on the 2026 World Cup rather than the executive committee.

Many of those same members supported Infantino in 2016 because the Swiss football politician proposed increasing the $1 million paid every four years through the Financial Assistance Programme to $5 million.

Reticent sponsors

The World Cup is FIFA’s main money-earner but sponsors have been reticent to support this year’s event in Russia or the 2022 tournament due to years of corruption stories dogging the world body.

Knowing that FIFA faced a financial shortfall, in January 2018, the North American bid chairman Sunil Gulati, who is also a member of the FIFA Council, made a thinly veiled warning that supporting his bid was the only way to keep the development money rolling in.

The New York Times reported Gulati as saying: “FIFA’s finances are heavily, heavily dependent on one event, the men’s World Cup. So there’s a direct line between funding for programs around the world and what happens at the World Cup, and the revenue that’s generated.”

That comment passed without censure, and FIFA appears to be making the rules of the bid process up as the procedure unfolds.

FIFA embraced joint bids, allowing the unlikely North American bid featuring two countries soon to be divided by if US Donald Trump’s plan to get Mexico to build a wall with his country succeeds.

However, FIFA ruled out a potential joint bid between Morocco and Spain, which are just 14-km either side of the Straits of Gibraltar and have daily transport links.

FIFA also ruled out agreements between bidders and other nations even though the Moroccans had struck dozens well before the process even began.

Restrictions on public statements

Although Oceania is supporting North America and Botswana and Qatar came out as supporting Morocco, at the start of February FIFA also sent a letter to all members asking them to stop making public statements of support.

FIFA stepped in to prevent CAF president Ahmad from making a presentation on the Morocco bid during CAF’s own congress in the Moroccan city of Casablanca at the start of February.

However, a fortnight later on February 16, Gulati, tweeted at 11:02am that he had just made a presentation in Johannesburg to the 14 members of the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA).

That seemed to contradict FIFA’s edit in Casablanca, but the world body’s ethics committee then acted very quickly to ensure that Gulati was not breaking any rules.

The same day that Gulati tweeted of his meeting with COSAFA, FIFA’s Ethics Committee representative in the 2026 bid process emailed a letter to FIFA’s general secretary Fatma Samoura saying that such meetings were now allowed.

The three-page FIFA letter, which was sent by email by the Gibraltarian FA president Michael Llamas, who represents FIFA’ Ethics committee on the bid process, has been seen by Play the Game.

The letter, dated February 16, lays down three ‘limitations and principles’ for presentations by the bids:

  • Presentations of bidders at the Congress or meetings of Confederations shall be limited to the meetings of the six Confederations in the week ahead of the 68th FIFA Congress.
  • Presentations of bidders will be allowed at meetings of Regional Associations, groupings of Member Associations and individual Member Associations.
  • Equal possibility is granted to both bidders.

So, on the same day that Gulati seemingly broke FIFA’s own rules, the world body changed them to let him off.

FIFA’s financial gains

Although the Moroccans are producing a document to show that a tournament in North Africa would make as much money for FIFA as a World Cup back in the USA just 22 years after the tournament was last there, news of extra TV cash from North America for FIFA has emerged.

After the Qatar tournament was moved from the European summer to winter, Fox News and Telemundo, which already had the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, complained.

As compensation, the two companies were able to buy the North American rights to 2026 without the deal going to open tender. However, if the US-led bid wins, then FIFA now stands to get an additional $302 million from Fox and Telemundo.

“Economically and financially too, there is something very safe about the US,” says Professor Simon Chadwick. “After all, despite China's bold sporting ambitions, the US remains the world's largest sport economy and is likely to continue to be so for some years to come. Furthermore, it will potentially strengthen FIFA's financial position in a more predictable and internationally palatable way than other, more recent hosting decisions have.”

Slow start for Morocco

The European TV rights for 2026 remain unsold and a bid in North Africa, where the time zone is only two hours different to most of Europe, could prove attractive but the Morocco bid has been slow getting going.

“You cannot communicate before you know the rules of the game.” says Hicham El Amrani, the chief executive of the Morocco 2026 bid, who notes that “the other candidate started in March, even before the bid regulations were out.”

Amrani, a former CAF general secretary, adds: “We declared interest in August and we read the regulations in September and confirmed the same regulations at FIFA’s council meeting in October in India; we could not say anything before then.”

In early January, the Morocco bid hired Vero, the London-based consultants ran by former UEFA spin doctor Mike Lee, who had helped Qatar win the 2022 bid race.

On January 23, the Moroccan bid team made a hurried and unexpected launch in Casablanca, which was attended mainly by domestic media. A month later, the first in a series of regular newsletters from the Moroccan bid team was published in six languages exactly a month later.

The Moroccans will surely pick up the majority of African votes but has a big task as other moves made by Infantino directly outside of the bid process will also benefit North America.

After taking office, Infantino introduced the FIFA Forward programme, which granted $10 million a year to each regional confederation.

The Canadian Victor Montagliani, a key Infantino ally who was elected CONCACAF president in May 2016, is using the money to fund a League of Nations to replace friendlies in his region.

The move will help the tiny often inactive islands that make up a swathe of CONCACAF’s membership to play more regularly but has also seemingly cemented the end of the Caribbean Football Union.

Under its now disgraced former president Jack Warner, the Caribbean vote came as a bloc and was often abused, but under the old CFU leadership CONCACAF could not rely on these 25 votes.

With the League of Nations plan, an expansion of the Gold Cup from 12 to 16 teams and the idea of joint hosting outside of the usual host the USA on offer, CONCACAF has surely done enough to secure those 25 votes.

Infantino’s political position at stake

Other aspects of the process also rankle insiders, such as the number of senior FIFA executive staff from countries in the North American bid and the seeming neutrality of those FIFA members who are US citizens.

None of the potential hosts get a vote, but American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which are directly tied economically and politically to the United States, will get a vote that will surely benefit North America.

Whether the vote will be held in private or public also remains to be decided. A private vote would make it easier for subsequent retribution for a defeated US-led bid and what some believe is its main supporter – Gianni Infantino.

Gulati, in his previous role as CONCACAF president, was a key ally in Infantino’s election and securing the 2026 World Cup is seen as pay-back.

“If the US lose, it will be a political defeat for Infantino and have huge consequences for his re-election,” says one insider in the bid process.

The 2026 World Cup is certainly only part of a bigger story.

Professor Chadwick concludes: “Perhaps the US could also the calm before the storm; it is seemingly inevitable that the World Cup will be awarded to China for either 2030 or 2034. By awarding 2026 to the US, this potentially buys some time for FIFA to deal with the ramifications of a decision to award the tournament to China.”

All this shows that while the outright corruption of awarding a World Cup maybe have been avoided this time around, manipulation remains very much part of the game.

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