Morocco’s World Cup bid and the limits of using sports for public diplomacy

Its bid to host the global sporting event could potentially backfire, leading to increased scrutiny of domestic protests and its occupation of Western Sahara

(mbeki.org)

Earlier this month Morocco announced its bid for the expanded 48-team 2026 FIFA World Cup, marking the fifth time that it will be seeking to host the global sporting event. With its application submitted on the 11 August deadline set by FIFA, Morocco will now be competing against the joint bid of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. But while the bid and the tournament offer a significant opportunity for Morocco to promote itself internationally, this could also backfire.

So far there is little detail about Morocco’s bid, and the combined resources, existing infrastructure and facilities, and lobbying power of the joint United States-Mexico-Canada campaign make it likely that Morocco will again be unsuccessful. Indeed the joint bid already has the backing of the CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean) and OFC (Oceania) confederations.

But while the odds are certainly against Morocco’s bid, it will not be without its supporters, with the CAF (African) confederation president Ahmad Ahmad endorsing the bid and urging members to back Morocco. Morocco has also hosted other, albeit much smaller, FIFA tournaments in the past, including the Club World Cup in 2013 and 2014. In 2016, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that Morocco had the necessary “infrastructure and organizational capacity” to host the World Cup. Moreover, given the controversial politics of lobbying for the right to host other FIFA World Cups, which often yields unexpected results, nothing is set in stone.

With a global audience in the billions, it’s easy to see why hosting the World Cup is an attractive proposition for a government. The prestige, attention, and money involved make the tournament a hugely significant chance to market a country to the world, polishing its international image. But attracting the world’s attention can also have unwanted results, leading to greater scrutiny of uncomfortable issues.

The announcement of the bid came amidst ongoing domestic unrest in Morocco, with protests in its Rif region growing since fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016. Protestors could seek to use the heightened focus on Morocco as a means to attract attention to their cause.

More broadly, the bid and Morocco’s potential hosting of the tournament could also be used to spotlight its decades-long occupation of Western Sahara. Indeed in 2004 journalist Andrew Jennings said of Morocco’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2010 World Cup that if the tournament were awarded to Morocco it would be FIFA’s “most shameful act since giving the World Cup to Argentina’s murderous military junta in 1978.” And the occupation has only grown more entrenched since then.

After invading the territory in 1975, Morocco has occupied the majority of Western Sahara since a 1991 ceasefire with the Polisario Front, the independence movement of the indigenous Saharawi population, ended a bitter war. Despite pressure from the United Nations and the International Court of Justice ruling against Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory (something that no state recognizes) and in favor of the Saharawis right to self-determination, they are denied the ability to exercise that right by Morocco, with the backing of its powerful allies including France and the United States. The Saharawi continue to face systematic discrimination and violence, and over 100,000 refugees are still stuck in refugee camps in southern Algeria after fleeing the war.

Soccer has been part of Morocco’s efforts to legitimize and normalize its occupation of Western Sahara. Laayoune, the largest city in the occupied territory, has hosted star-studded gala matches. It’s also currently home to Jeunesse Sportive d’El Massira, a soccer team in Morocco’s second division founded two years after Morocco invaded the territory. And it’s not some out of the way afterthought in Moroccan soccer, having, for example, hosted the 2016 Moroccan Throne Cup final, something which one pro-government news website labelledan affirmation of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.”

The fact that Western Sahara is not a member of FIFA—it recently joined the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA)—means that the presence of a Moroccan club on occupied territory has attracted little attention, particularly compared with the recent focus on the presence of Israeli clubs in illegal settlements on Palestinian territory (both Israel and Palestine are FIFA members). However, bidding for and hosting the World Cup could lead to heightened scrutiny of this issue.

Writing about the centrality of sport and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar’s soft power strategy, James Dorsey, author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a recent book of the same name, has highlighted the limits of soccer as a “tool of public diplomacy.” Indeed the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was met with widespread protests by Brazilians angry at an out of touch government and the enormous costs of the tournament. As for Qatar, since being awarded the tournament it has faced sustained international criticism over its poor human rights record, particularly with regards to its labor practices. Dorsey notes that while soccer has enormous public diplomacy potential, it takes “more than success on the pitch and money to harness its power. It takes a mix of policies that address both domestic and foreign concerns, an efficient public relations and communications policy, and a measure of transparency and accountability.”

The festering sore that is the occupation of Western Sahara thus presents an opportunity for activists to exploit Morocco’s vulnerability in this regard, highlighting an issue that normally attracts little international attention. At press time, the Polisario had not yet responded to Morocco’s announcement of its current bid. Previous Moroccan bids, however, have attracted criticism from Saharawi and their supporters. In 2004, Mariem Hmada, Western Sahara’s exiled culture and sports minister, told FIFA that Morocco lacked the “moral standing” to host the 2010 World Cup because of the occupation. This criticism is arguably just as valid now.

In the end FIFA will probably award the 2026 tournament to the joint United States-Mexico-Canada bid due to the reasons outlined earlier. This bid also came under scrutiny due to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, although this has faded away as the ban has been challenged by the courts. With the growing prominence of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the United States and Trump’s ability to generate political scandals, it could come under renewed scrutiny again, although the fact that it is a joint bid may help to limit any damage.

Given FIFA’s long history of awarding World Cups to fascist regimes, authoritarian governments, and military dictatorships, it is unlikely that Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara will be a factor in its decision regarding Morocco’s bid. Nevertheless, the heightened scrutiny Morocco is likely to come under will make it vulnerable to criticism and to attempts to challenge its dominant international image as an exotic tourist destination rather than an occupying power.


Follow Aubrey on Twitter @AubBloomfield.