“The World Cup is a national priority for our government,” said Moulay Hafid Elalamy, candidature chairman for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid, prior to its failure in June last year. So it would seem. Morocco holds the undesirable title of most World Cup bids without success. Its most recent bid missed out by a large margin to the triumvirate of Canada, Mexico and the US, perhaps causing some to question why Morocco keeps bothering with what appears a futile pursuit.
This was the fifth time the Atlas Lions had been defeated. The 1994 edition was their first World Cup rodeo, when they lost to the US by a mere three votes. Following this slim defeat, they entered the 1998 process, in which they were pitted against England, Switzerland, Germany, and France. After a few withdrawals, only Morocco and France remained, but again the Moroccans lost, this time by 12 votes to seven.
The process for the 2010 World Cup was arguably their best shot at a World Cup, with the rotation system in place to ensure the World Cup took place in Africa. After Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya’s bids faltered, Morocco and South Africa were the only two left. The latter came out on top, winning 14 votes to 10, though allegations later emerged that Morocco had actually received more votes. Regardless, South Africa hosted the inaugural African World Cup.
Moroccans may feel hard done by; FIFA Executive Committee – the board that vote on the bidding process – member Chuck Blazer later revealed that he was bribed to vote for South Africa in 2010 and France in 1998, largely to Morocco’s detriment. However, Jack Warner also revealed that he double-crossed Moroccan bribes by voting for South Africa – whose bribes were larger.
Despite these disappointments, Morocco pitched another bid for the 2026 World Cup. Their bid focussed on Moroccan passion for football, the accessibility of a schedule close to European time zones, and the conveniently compact geolocation of potential match venues. The United bid, crucially, was more infrastructurally sound and offered an estimated windfall of $14bn for FIFA, $2bn more than the Moroccan bid. The North Africans’ bid was handily defeated – 134 votes to 65.
However, their fervour for World Cup fever is showing no signs of slackening, as a bid for the 2030 tournament is already being planned, by order of King Mohammed VI. Morocco’s king, it would seem, is eager to welcome the Jules Rimet to Morocco. Does the monarch simply have a penchant for football or more political motives?
Throughout his reign, Mohammed VI has enacted a number of schemes in order to revamp sport throughout Morocco. Six Mohammed VI football academies have been built since 2010. No less than 832 social and sport community complexes are to be constructed over the next few years. The monarch certainly recognises the usefulness of sport as a regenerative tool domestically.
Within the 2026 bid itself, the tournament is portrayed as a potential catalyst for economic and cultural change: “The Morocco 2026 bid is also offering an opportunity to highlight lesser-known aspects of a country on a journey of significant change. Morocco has initiated major political, economic and social reforms, responding to developments within an unstable international climate, with the aim of harnessing economic potential and meeting the changing aspirations of a younger generation.”
Hosting a World Cup offers opportunity, above all else. Infrastructural, international, domestic, reputational, political, economic. It’s an opportunity to address numerous aims in one fell swoop. The World Cup host has a chance to ‘image-leverage’, a term coined by academic Jonathan Grix, which essentially means to improve one’s image in the global spotlight by challenging stereotypes and negative opinions. During almost every major tournament, the host nation will attempt to espouse a certain image of itself.
In recent years especially, the major tournaments have been viewed by nations with questionable human rights records as a way to establish themselves on the international stage. Whilst Morocco’s human rights record isn’t widely criticised in Western circles as countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s have been, it’s not exactly commendable. Their treatment of the Western Sahara Sahrawi population has been criticised by Human Rights Watch, whilst their penal code still discriminates against LGBT people. Also significant is Morocco’s classification as a ‘hybrid regime’ – somewhere between authoritarian and democratic – by the Economist’s Democracy Index.
The tournament also offers an opportunity for infrastructural development. In their 2026 bid, the Moroccan football federation planned to spend £15.8bn and build nine stadiums nationwide, including a 93,000-seater behemoth in Casablanca to host the final. World Cups also offer an opportunity to improve transport infrastructure in the host nation; roads, airports, and public transport links are all necessary for successful hosting, and thus tend to compose a sizeable part of a tournament’s proposed budget. As part of Morocco’s 2026 bid, for example, over $1bn of road developments were proposed.
The Moroccan 2026 bid cites national unity and cohesion as a significant reason for its bid. Described as a “land where football passions run through every vein”, the national togetherness incurred by a World Cup would be reminiscent of that felt throughout Morocco’s performance at the 2018 tournament, where, despite a surprising loss to Iran, they put in spirited performances against Spain and Portugal. Such national unity can have a domino effect upon nationalism, and thus regime stability.
Why does Morocco keep failing?
The repeated bids are symptomatic of Morocco’s insatiable desire for football. From twilight games on Mediterranean beaches to the diaspora of Spanish football fans spread throughout city cafes during Clásicos, to the scarlet walls of fans that line the populate stadiums during international games, Morocco is a nation obsessed with the beautiful game.
This is perhaps what differentiates them from other World Cup bidders. Morocco seems to have a desire to host the World Cup, and the World Cup only. Other bidding nations can cite Olympic Games, Athletic Championships and other large sports events, proving their worth as a host nation. Both the US and Canada have hosted the Olympics several times. Mexico (1970 and 1986) and the US (1994) have hosted previous World Cups, whilst the 2015 Women’s World Cup took place on Canadian soil.
Morocco has no such experience. The 2018 African Nations Championship is the first major sports event it has hosted since the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations. Its acquisition of the 2014 and 2015 Club World Cups and the 2016 and 2017 IAAF Diamond League are steps in the right direction, but Morocco could do more to increase its host nation CV. Citing events such as the 1983 Mediterranean Games in its bid for 2026 underlines just how inexperienced a host Morocco is.
Though Morocco passed a FIFA inspection for its 2026 bid, it scored a rather poor 2.7 points out of a possible 5. The United bid, on the other hand, scored 4 out of 5. Morocco was deemed high risk in three areas: stadiums, accommodation and accommodation and transport. The report states that “the amount of new infrastructure required for the Morocco 2026 bid to become reality cannot be overstated”.
In contrast, the United bid was not deemed‘high risk in any areas. Hosting other large-scale events would enable construction and improvement of stadiums at a sustainable rate, as opposed to the numerous constructions required at once for a World Cup.
More generally, Moroccan football seems to be undergoing a resurgence. The nation’s FA president Fouzi Lekjaa is attempting to usher in a fresh, modern approach for football governance in North Africa as he looks to recast Morocco as a continental powerhouse.
The talent coming through their ranks supports this vision, as a new crop of players are successfully plying their trade in Europe. Ousamma Idrissi is lighting up the Eredivisie at AZ Alkmaar, whilst compatriots Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui recently helped dismantle Real Madrid in the Champions League, with Ziyech reportedly interesting a range of European clubs. Achraf Hakimi has been impressing with Dortmund in the Bundesliga.
Hervé Renard, the architect of Zambia’s famous AFCON victory in 2012, has signed a contract with the national team until 2022, hoping to build on their positive performances at the 2018 World Cup and the 2017 AFCON.
Morocco have plenty in their favour on the pitch going into the 2030 process, but they need to adopt a grander strategy if they’re to be successful in the bidding wars which frequent the hosting process. Tournaments such as the Mediterranean Games offer opportunities for Morocco to develop their host nation portfolio, whilst increasing Euro-Arab cooperation, something Mohammed VI recently expressed interest in.
Thankfully, they do seem to be learning from their failures. Spain’s prime minister recently approached Mohammed VI about the possibility of a joint 2030 bid featuring Spain, Morocco and Portugal. This move toward an intercontinental tournament is a step in the right direction. Both Spain (1982 World Cup) and Portugal (2004 European Championship) have experience of hosting major tournaments, as well as grand football reputations internationally. Gianni Infantino, too, is likely to be a fan of the cooperation between federations given his support for joint bids.
Given that infrastructural issues characterise much of Morocco’s previous failures, dividing their responsibility in half, or by two-thirds, could give them the relief needed to provide infrastructural and operational assurances. Spain and Portugal’s 2018 and 2022 bids were classed as low risk overall, and low risk in every individual category bar two. Being entrusted with a more manageable portion of tournament operations decreases the likelihood of an economically disastrous tournament for Morocco. Empty stadiums in Brazil and South Africa serve as reminders that the economic windfall a tournament can bring is often short-lived.
The joint bid also offers an opportunity to increase links between Morocco and Europe, and further Morocco’s popularity as a tourist destination. Morocco is already an associated country of the EU and holds advanced status under the European Neighbourhood Policy. Moreover, this opens possibility on a global scale, as Morocco can increase its profile as a diplomatic gateway to Europe for North African countries, whilst strengthening its economic ties with Portugal and Spain, the latter of which recently became Morocco’s leading economic partner.
Japan and South Korea’s 2002 World Cup is evidence that FIFA can recognise when a host nation requires operational assistance. Given that Spain and Portugal could offer such assistance, Morocco will perhaps regret not looking across the Med earlier.
By Ewan Morgan @ewan_morgan