In it to win it: Can Morocco 2026 upset the odds to land the World Cup?

A serial bidder for the Fifa World Cup, Morocco has failed in four previous attempts to land soccer’s illustrious showpiece. With its sights now firmly set on the 2026 edition, the North African nation is out to upset the odds this time.

In it to win it: Can Morocco 2026 upset the odds to land the World Cup?

There are underdogs, and then there are rank outsiders. In the race to host the 2026 Fifa World Cup, a bloated tournament that will feature an expanded slate of 48 teams and 80 matches for the first time, Morocco is almost certainly the latter.

Having made failed attempts for the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 editions, the North African nation has a track record of failure when it comes to bidding for international soccer’s showpiece occasion. That the country now finds itself going up against arguably the most formidable of foes – an unprecedented joint proposal from the United States, Canada and Mexico, who together wield considerable commercial might, world class infrastructure and undoubted sporting prowess – has done little to inspire confidence that this time will be any different.

On the face of it – and on paper – Morocco barely seems to stand a chance. Yet, as the annals of sporting history attest, underdog status often counts for little.

‘Together For One Goal’

Morocco formally announced its bid last August, when the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) confirmed its intention to enter the race just hours before a Fifa deadline for expressions of interest. The bid would see the country vie to become only the second in Africa to host a World Cup after South Africa staged the tournament eight years ago. Moreover, it would ensure a clash of two starkly different bids and cultures, giving rise to an intriguing two-horse race that is being billed as the archetypal David versus Goliath tussle.

Whereas North America’s three-pronged United Bid is touting its operational certainty, financial allure and a compelling plan to stage matches in vast venues spread across an entire continent, Morocco’s proposal – promoted under the strapline ‘Together For One Goal’ – is altogether more compact, even if it is no less ambitious. A country of 35 million people, whose previous major soccer event hosting experience includes the Fifa Club World Cups of 2013 and 2014, the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations and this year’s African Nations Championship, plans to stage matches across 12 cities and 14 stadiums, including nine newly constructed facilities.

Existing venues in Marrakesh, Agadir, Fez, Rabat and Tangier will undergo extensive renovations to ensure they meet Fifa requirements, while three already planned stadiums – including the National Stadium in Casablanca, a 93,000-seater facility that will host the tournament’s opening match and final before becoming the new home of the Moroccan national team – will also be used.

Meanwhile six ‘Legacy Modular Stadiums’ (LMS) located in Casablanca, Marrakesh, El Jadida, Meknes, Nador and Ouarzazate – each of which will seat around 46,000 fans – will be downscaled after the tournament in order to suit the needs of their local communities and boost the event’s sustainability and legacy credentials. The LMS in Marrakesh, for example, will become a multi-purpose indoor arena, while Ouarzazate’s venue will be remodelled into the headquarters of a soccer development centre.

In stark contrast to the noisy North American effort, which was confirmed last April during a launch event in New York City, Morocco’s campaign has been decidedly muted and somewhat cloaked in secrecy. Last August the FMRF announced the submission of its candidacy file with little fanfare, issuing nothing more than a two-sentence statement that led some, particularly those in the western media, to question the country’s approach.

Still, preparations gathered noticeable momentum this January after King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s ruler, named Moulay Hafid Elalamy, the country’s minister for industry, investment, trade and digital economy, as chairman of the bid. Later that month Morocco formally unveiled its bid campaign, logo and senior leadership team at a media event in Casablanca, with Hicham El Amrani, the former secretary general of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), installed as chief executive.

If we entered the race, it's because we can deliver a fantastic World Cup

“We are not concerned with our position, whether we are underdogs or not,” El Amrani, who was described by the bid team as bringing ‘commercial, marketing and planning expertise, along with extensive experience of working within in elite football governance’, told The Independent in March. “We are doing our work because, if we entered the race, it’s because we can deliver a fantastic World Cup.”

January also saw the arrival of Vero Communications, the renowned London-based bid strategists who came on board to advise the FMRF and the Morocco 2026 Bid Committee on all aspects of international media and social media communications, helping to craft the overall campaign message and ‘shape the vision of a welcoming, passionate and authentic tournament in one of Africa’s most dynamic nations’.

With Vero’s help, the Moroccan bid has since taken to social media to talk up the merits of its proposal, primarily touting the country’s appealing geographical location – including its relative proximity to most European capital cities and ‘stunning Mediterranean climate’ – as well as its favourable timezone for many major international broadcasters.

“Morocco is a truly welcoming country with an authentic passion for football, providing excellent conditions for players, easy for fans to access and get around and all in a single timezone,” said Mike Lee, Vero’s chairman, in a statement issued at the time of the company’s appointment. “Its location at the crossroads of Europe and Africa, and East and West, means it also offers Fifa a superb commercial proposition.”

He added: “This promises to be a very interesting campaign as a country from Africa seeks the honour to host the most important footballing event on the planet.”

Moulay Hafid Elalamy, Morocco’s minister for industry, investment, trade and digital economy, and chair of the country’s 2026 Fifa World Cup bid

As well as developing match venues, Morocco plans to build 130 training grounds for what will be the largest World Cup ever staged. Its infrastructural investments also include upgraded hospital services in 20 cities, improved transportation networks, and new hotels offering around 30,000 additional rooms. All told, the country has set out a US$3 billion budget to cover the cost of new or renovated competition and training venues required to stage the tournament, part of an overall budget that will see some US$12.6 billion in public funds and a further US$3.2 billion of private investment spent on infrastructure.

“Morocco is committed to offering players and fans an authentic experience,” said Elalamy, “and our 12 proposed host cities capture not simply the magic, mountains, pristine beaches and centuries old culture of Morocco, but also our modernity, rapidly expanding infrastructure and unique vision to host a tournament of celebratory passion that presents the best of football. The Fifa World Cup 2026 is a national priority for our government and that is why it has guaranteed the required investment in our exciting and innovative stadium plans.”  

Moroccan officials acknowledge that their bid is unable to compete with a North American World Cup in terms of commercial, ticketing and hospitality revenue projections. Nevertheless, there is a sense among Moroccans that their home is better equipped than ever to host the tournament. Above all else, their efforts to convince Fifa of the merits of their bid have focused on the potential financial upside tied to the country’s geographical location, which they say will offer more primetime matches in Europe and help to maximise the value of broadcast rights in major markets – something that could prove hugely attractive for Fifa given the importance of European World Cup TV deals to the body’s coffers.

The bid team has also highlighted the allure of its single timezone (GMT) and currency, the extent to which soccer is a national pastime in the would-be host country, the limited travel and comparatively simple logistics of staging all matches within a 550km radius from Casablanca, and Morocco’s future infrastructure development plans, including a soon-to-open high-speed rail line.

“Our hotel capacity has more than doubled since 2003 – we now have 110,000 hotel rooms and we will increase our bed capacity by 70 per cent by 2026,” Elalamy has said. “All host cities are also all located within an hour’s drive of an airport, so players and fans need only focus on the one thing that matters most – football.”

 El Amrani, meanwhile, has pointed out that the Morocco of today – a politically stable, rapidly modernising and increasingly outward-looking tourist haven – is far different from the Morocco of 2003, when it last entered a bid for the World Cup. “In terms of profitability,” he said, speaking to The Independent, “the World Cup is going to have 16 nations from Europe and nine from Africa that are within the same timezone. Europe is more than half the world in terms of revenue generation. And the Middle East is increasingly important.”

A press event for the Morocco 2026 bid in mid-March

Gauging Fifa’s mood

Morocco’s unenviable track record when it comes to World Cup bidding has already seen the country’s chances written off by many once again, but as the race for 2026 has drawn on there has been a growing sense that the final vote will turn out to be much closer than anticipated.

Though generally deemed to be the long shot, owing to its inferior infrastructure and less appealing commercial profile, Morocco could yet benefit from certain political and non-sporting undercurrents that may or may not influence the outcome. For instance, the United bid hopes are believed to have been dented in recent months by incendiary comments made by US president Donald Trump and his administration’s repeated attempts to impose tougher immigration policies, while the general consensus is that the US Department of Justice’s 2015 investigation into soccer-related corruption has stoked anti-American sentiment within Fifa.

Whether those factors serve to sway the 2026 World Cup vote in Morocco’s favour remains to be seen. There are certainly signs, however, that support for the Moroccan proposal has mounted in recent months, particularly since Fifa confirmed significant changes to its World Cup host selection process.

In a notable departure from past processes, the decisive vote for 2026 will come down to Fifa’s entire membership, part of a move towards greater transparency and democracy following a succession of World Cup votes made by the executive committee that were marred by accusations of bribery, vote-trading and corruption. For the first time, too, every vote cast will be made public – an amendment implemented in the interests of accountability but which could give rise to intimidation and, by extension, politically motivated voting.

This is our hope and our dream because it is unfair that a great continent like Africa has only been allowed to organise one World Cup in a century

In any case, reports suggest Morocco stands to receive broad support among African nations, who collectively represent some 53 of the 207 votes up for grabs – the four bidding nations are excluded from the ballot, according to Fifa rules. Ahmad Ahmad, the president of CAF, one of six regional confederations that comprise Fifa, has personally endorsed the Moroccan bid despite new neutrality guidelines preventing officials from speaking about any of the proposals in public.

“This is our hope and our dream because it is unfair that a great continent like Africa has only been allowed to organise one World Cup in a century,” Ahmad said. “I think it is legitimate for us to want one of our countries to make this commitment, and I myself as a president am committed to join in this bid.”

There have also been suggestions that Morocco could benefit from widespread support in Asia, while a recent endorsement from the currently banned Sepp Blatter, who has described the country as “the logical host”, might resonate within those countries where the Swiss cultivated lasting relationships during his 18-year reign as Fifa president.

Aside from the voting reforms, a further change for 2026 will see a Fifa task force assess the technical merits of the proposals, which were both formally submitted to the body on 16th March. In another first, the five-man, mostly European task force will score each bid based on aspects such as stadiums, infrastructure and environmental impact, while Fifa inspectors will also travel to each of the bidding nations for evaluation visits in April. Infrastructure, of which half relates to stadiums, accounts for 70 per cent of the overall mark, with the remaining 30 per cent attributed to projected costs and revenues.

If both bids meet Fifa’s prescribed standards, the findings of the task force’s technical reports will be presented on 6th June to the ruling Fifa Council, who will then decide whether a final host city selection vote should go ahead during the Fifa Congress in Moscow, Russia a week later, on the eve of this summer’s tournament.

Moroccan officials have openly expressed their support for Fifa’s reforms – although it should be noted that those measures were introduced, at least in part, to eliminate the kind of impropriety that Morocco itself has previously been accused of engaging in. American investigators have alleged that, during the tarnished bidding process for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, individuals tied to the Moroccan effort paid a bribe to Jack Warner, the indicted former Concacaf president also accused of taking an illicit payment of US$10 million from the winning bid team.

Those driving the Moroccan push for 2026 have expressed frustration at any talk of impropriety, repeatedly insisting that there will be no such integrity concerns on this occasion. This time, they say, Morocco simply means business, and now nothing will get in the way of the country’s ultimate objective.

“We are not here for a communications stunt,” El Amrani said in a recent interview with BBC Sport. “We are here to win.”

Hicham El Amrani, the former secretary general of CAF, was installed as bid chief executive in late January