The race to host the 2026 World Cup enters its last day with all still to play for, thanks to uncertainty about Morocco’s ability to pay for it versus whether America really deserves it.
The joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the United States has been the front-runner from the moment a North American coalition was first mooted two years ago and there have been spells when it has looked like the only credible candidate – an impression the bid has been keen to foster.
But Morocco, bidding for a fifth time, has closed the gap on ‘United 2026’ to the point that nobody in Moscow wants to make a public prediction ahead of Wednesday’s vote at the FIFA Congress, where 207 member associations, minus the four bidding nations, are scheduled to cast ballots.
Four further associations are ineligible to vote, as Press Association Sport understands Morocco has been successful after asking FIFA to stop US overseas territories American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands from taking part. That is a testament to how narrow this race has got.
The real issue, though, is whether all the member associations will take FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s advice and be guided by the governing body’s glowing technical assessment of the United bid – not to mention its promise of record-smashing revenues – or let more subjective factors guide their decision.
Chief amongst those is US President Donald Trump, whose ‘America First’ approach might score well with his electoral base but they have made the United bid’s task harder than it could ever have imagined.
From his rows with Mexico about a border wall, to his derogatory remarks about developing nations, to his refusal to support a common position at last week’s G7 summit, Trump has stoked traditional anti-American sentiment and annoyed friends. In April, he even tweeted a threat to American allies considering a vote for Morocco.
With the US planning to stage the lion’s share of games – 60 compared to 10 each for its junior partners – the United bid has tried to remind voters America will have a different president then but it will still be the world’s richest market and it will not have to build so much as a changing room to stage the event.
This last point, what the bid is calling “certainty”, leads to its strongest card, “opportunity”, by which it means its ability to generate a projected profit for FIFA of more than £8billion. That is a lot of development grants.
Morocco’s bid believes this number has crept up as the race has got closer and even Infantino, who has made little secret of his support for the United bid, has said it is “optimistic”, but the bid has told Press Association Sport it thinks its numbers are “conservative”.
It has talked about the World Cup as a series of Super Bowls, re-engaging FIFA with US-based multinationals, selling 5.8million tickets at an average of more than £300 each and making money in ways previous hosts have never even tried, such as with concerts and stadium tours.
While some observers have suggested its £5billion projected profit is also a best-case scenario, Morocco has largely avoided competing with the North Americans in a dash for cash. To do so would have invited ridicule when it needs to build or renovate the 14 stadiums it wants to use – a task FIFA’s technical report said “cannot be overstated”.
So they have concentrated their pitch on the country’s undisputed passion for football, the notion that Africa deserves another World Cup after South Africa 2010, its far more compact offering and Euro-friendly time zone.
Unsurprisingly, this should bring Morocco most of the 53 available votes from Africa – although its call on African unity will not sway everyone – and its cultural and economic ties with France and Spain should see it do well with European voters, too, although England and the home nations are expected to vote United.
Both bids make their final appeals to UEFA voters in the Russian capital on Tuesday.
United will get most of the votes from its own confederation CONCACAF and the South American group CONMEBOL has declared its support, too. In fact, CONMEBOL told Morocco it was too busy to hear its final pitch in Moscow on Monday.
The small Oceania confederation is understood to be split which means Asia could hold the key and it is here that geopolitics could play the biggest role, as America’s regional ally Saudi Arabia will go one way and rival Qatar the other.
Factor in Trump’s rapprochement with North Korea, his visa restrictions on Islamic countries and Russia’s influence in the region and you have a very unpredictable electorate.
And just to add to the complexity, there is a third option for all voters: neither Morocco or United and we start a new bidding process.
The result, one way or another, will be made public, including where each vote went, by early Wednesday afternoon.
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