The history behind Morocco’s “Africa” World Cup not being fully embraced by all Africans

A failed pitch.
A failed pitch.
Image: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Morocco’s fifth bid to host the World Cup, like its previous four, ended in disappointment.

After a vote by FIFA member nations on June 13, the “United” bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico was picked ahead of Morocco to host the 2026 World  Cup. Morocco notched 65 votes, compared to 134 by the United bid. Crucially, 11 African countries voted against Morocco’s bid despite its projection of a united front for another “Africa” World Cup. That lack of African support proved costly as, to have any chance of winning the 104 votes required for a simple majority, Morocco needed the 54 votes held by Africa’s federations.

Some of the opposition to Morocco’s bid within the continent stemmed from a four-decade old territory dispute: Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara also known as Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a former Spanish colony in 1975.

South Africa, the first African country to host the World Cup in 2010, was one of the major opponents of Morocco’s bid over its Western Sahara claims. Both countries have had a strained relationship since 2004 when South Africa recognized the Western Sahara’s independence. Similarly, Namibia voted against Morocco’s bid saying ”it will never support nor align itself with a colonizer” in reference to Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. After World War 1, Namibia was itself occupied by neighbor South Africa for 75 years until 1990.

Politics over Western Sahara territory have lingered for years. In January 2017, Morocco rejoined the African Union after a 33-year absence since the union admitted Western Sahara as a member state in 1984. But Morocco’s re-admission was voted against by 15 of the AU’s 54 member states. Morocco also asked the AU to re-consider its stance on recognizing SADR when it requested to rejoin.

Morocco’s Africa foreign policy has markedly changed in recent years under King Mohammed VI. Beyond rejoining the AU, Morocco is also looking to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and has launched a charm offensive across the continent, complete with state visits by the King, seeking and signing bilateral deals with several sub-Saharan countries.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco (L) meets president of Senegal Macky Sall at the opening of the Africa Action Summit
King Mohammed VI of Morocco (L) meets president of Senegal Macky Sall at the opening of the Africa Action Summit
Image: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

Ebola fear

But the existing strained relationships were not helped by Morocco’s failure to host the African Cup of Nations in January 2015 following an Ebola outbreak in some African countries. Morocco initially requested for a postponement of the tournament, typically hosted between January and February at the time, to June over fears of a spread of the outbreak. But CAF, Africa’s soccer governing body, rejected Morocco’s request and Equatorial Guinea stepped in as emergency hosts. CAF suspended Morocco from two editions of the competition and fined the country $1 million but a Court of Arbitration ruling reduced the fine to $50,000 and scrapped the ban. Two of the countries with the worst cases of Ebola in 2014, Liberia and Sierra Leone, both voted against Morocco this time round.

Ultimately, Morocco’s bid failed to win enough support even beyond Africa. Put another way, if all African federations had voted for Morocco, it would still have been well short of a simple majority required to host the tournament. The North African country will have to implement whatever lessons it has learned from its fifth failed bid quickly as it has already announced plans to bid to host the 2030 World Cup.