After months of meetings and arm-twisting, a campaign that began last August when Morocco jumped into the race on the final day that countries could announce their intention to bid, ended in an instant: with electronic vote totals suddenly flashing onto a giant screen.
The victory spared U.S. Soccer a second stunning defeat in less than a year; the United States men’s team is missing the World Cup this summer, its first absence since 1986. The American federation spent more than $6 million — out of a combined budget of about $8 million — to bring the World Cup back to North America, and its first-term president, Carlos Cordeiro, had criss-crossed the globe to meet voters since his election in February.
The North Americans had offered FIFA’s member associations a ready-made World Cup; the 23 stadiums they offered as potential hosts are already built, as is most of the infrastructure the expanded 48-team tournament will need: training sites, hotels, airports, rail lines.
And, like Morocco, the North Americans also had the full support of their governments. The nations’ so-called United Bid was a rare topic on which the presidents of the three countries found common cause, and the United States government, including President Trump, had mounted a stealthy shadow campaign to try to win over FIFA and its member federations.
The North American bid’s signature selling point, however, was delivered in a language FIFA members long have understood: revenue. The North Americans promised FIFA a record $11 billion profit — a staggering amount of money that could mean as much as $50 million for each national association.
Morocco, which pledged a profit of less than half as large as its rival’s, criticized the focus on money over soccer until the bitter end.
“The United Bid is proposing an offer that is mainly a business proposal for football,” one Moroccan official, Moncef Belkhayat, said Monday. “Their offer is based on dollars, on profit, while Morocco is offering an offer that is based on passion for football, for development of football — not only in Morocco, but also in Africa.”
Morocco’s proposal, too, came with serious concerns. The 2026 World Cup will be the first with 48 teams, a significant expansion from the current 32 and a massive undertaking for any host, especially one going it alone. Morocco would have needed to spend billions of dollars to build nine stadiums and to significantly renovate five others, and do all of it in eight years — four fewer than the 12 FIFA gave to Qatar, which still has not finished the job of getting ready for the 2022 World Cup.
Then there were the hotels, the highways, the rail links and the facilities to host a tournament set to bring more than 1,100 players and millions of fans to North Africa; all would have needed to be built, at a cost of billions more.
Infantino Has the Last Word
In his closing remarks, Gianni Infantino saves the big news for the end: he confirms he will stand for re-election as FIFA president at next year’s congress in Paris. No one expected him to walk away, but now he’s officially running.
Morocco Makes Its Closing Argument
Morocco opens with a really-deep-voiceover video about its pitch, but it is uncomfortable to boast a $5 million profit for FIFA when the other guy just dropped a number more than twice as big. Morocco’s representative, stepping away from the lectern in an open space on the stage, speaks with passion and calls its campaign “the bid of a whole nation.” Then he restates some of the same talking points it has used all along about domestic support (97 percent), coming infrastructure projects and one final dig at the United States and Mexico about guns and visas. “Weapons are formally banned in Morocco,” he says.
“Will Morocco be ready for the World Cup in 2026? Yes,” says the former Nigerian national team star Daniel Amokachi, who has worked as an ambassador for the Moroccans.
The Bids Speak: North America First
Each bid gets one last chance to make an appeal to FIFA voters. The North Americans send up the 17-year-old Canadian national team player Alphonso Davies first, and he stresses his roots in Ghana and Canada in appealing for his country. The Mexican federation president Decio De Maria follows him, speaking of passion for soccer in his country. Brianna Pinto, a member of the U.S. under-20 women’s national team, follows De Maria. Now Steve Reed, the Canadian federation head, and the Mexican youth international Diego Lainez. U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro comes on as the closer.
He drops the $11 billion profit line, how that can be turned back to FIFA members for development.
“It will be our honor to host the most extraordinary World Cup ever,” Cordeio says.
These brief speeches are an interesting, inclusive closing argument. Short enough to stress diversity and not bore the audience.
Breaking News: Spain Fires Coach Julen Lopetegui
In a stunning move two days before its World Cup opener against Portugal, Spain has fired its coach, Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui accepted the vacant Real Madrid job this week, and that infuriated his bosses at the Spanish federation. But now one of the World Cup’s top contenders has been thrown into disarray only days before its first match. Rory Smith is working the story, and we’ll have more in a bit.
Votes vs. Votes Cast
Just to clear up something before we head to the final vote: the decision on the 2026 host will be made on “a simple majority (more than 50%) of the valid votes cast,” according to the rules. That’s important, since about 10-15 votes have been missing in each of the votes so far, for reasons of disinterest or problems with voters who cannot sort out the electronic voting device in order to submit their votes correctly.
Back From the Break
The congress returns from a half-hour coffee break with a third test of the electronic voting system. This time the question is, “If FIFA headquarters located in Zurich, Switzerland?” And yet again, not everyone casts a valid vote, and the percentage of correct answers is only 95. Hmmmmm.
South Africa Flipping?
South Africa’s Sunday Times reports South Africa’s soccer federation will go back on its early support for Morocco and back the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup instead. “South Africa will break ranks with the majority of the rest of the continent and vote for the joint North American bids rather than Morocco,” the paper’s Mark Gleeson reports.
Putin Arrives in the Hall
Well this was not on the printed agenda, but Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has arrived to address the FIFA Congress. Infantino greets him with a modified bro hug — baller move — and Putin steps to the lectern.
“Our goal is for all our guests — football stars or regular fan — to feel the hospitality and welcoming nature of our nation, to understand our unique culture and unique nature and for the fans to want to come back,” he says. “We hope to see you all at the opening match. Welcome to Russia.”
Annnnd we take a half-hour break. Surely wonderful news to Americans who woke up in the middle of the night for this.
Compliance speeches and budget reports at 4 a.m. on the East Coast of the United States are a special kind of sleep aid. Kudos to anyone toughing it out while they are waiting for the 2026 vote.
Blatter Weighs In
From The Associated Press: The former FIFA President Sepp Blatter is claiming credit for Morocco’s not being eliminated by inspectors as a candidate to host the 2026 World Cup.
Blatter, who was ousted from power at FIFA in 2015 over financial misconduct, has publicly backed the Morocco bid.
He told the A.P. that “I was fighting for Morocco and for Africa because at a certain time (FIFA) wanted to eliminate Morocco before going to the vote, and now, they are at the vote and I think it’s a victory also of my intervention, especially.”
Morocco was scored 2.7 out of 5 by FIFA’s inspection task force, which marked the North America bid a 4 in the same report last month. Morocco would have been disqualified if it had scored lower than 2.
Back From the Dead
More Infantino: the president also reminded members of the state the organization was in when he took control in 2016, describing FIFA as “clinically dead” then. He then tells them that under his stewardship it is now “alive and full of passion with with a vision for its future.”
Infantino Sings the Standards, in Four Languages
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, shifting effortlessly among four languages, uses his address to the congress to highlight FIFA’s development spending and his work expanding revenues. This is a standard for FIFA presidents when they talk to the organization’s many smaller countries, and it is a point that got him elected in 2016 — after he promised to double development payments to member nations. But experienced listeners among you probably got the subtle hint he was sending ahead of the 2026 vote that one bid promises to bring in more than twice as much revenue as the other.
Those billions of dollars from the World Cup are where FIFA’s development money comes from, and Infantino is basically saying today that the more of that revenue there is to spread around as investments in global soccer, the better.
Sweden for North America
The president of Sweden’s soccer association, Karl-Erik Nilsson, told a radio interviewer that his country would vote for the North American bid today. That’s three Nordic countries to commit to the North American bid in the last hour.
Ghana is announced as absent in the roll call. That leaves 210 members in attendance at the congress, and since the four bidding nations cannot cast a ballot, it means that the magic number to guarantee victory in the 2026 vote remains at 104. Morocco has been pressing to bar four American territories from voting, too, but the North Americans will be expected to contest that.
Late Night? For Many, Yes
A note from a bleary-eyed Tariq Panja, who was out very late reporting on Tuesday: Teams from both bids worked well into the early morning Wednesday to target swing voters from Europe and Asia. Shortly after 12.30 a.m., a delegation from Morocco swept into the five-star Baltschug Kempinski hotel. They were followed less than 10 minutes later by a team from the North American bid, including U.S. President Carlos Cordeiro.
The two bid teams had been shadowing each other’s movements for the entire week in Moscow, visiting various confederation meetings, and the trip to the Baltschug Kempinski, the Asian associations’ hotel, was a sign that both bidders remained convinced they still had a chance to secure sport’s biggest prize.
The North American bid was able to lean on vocal and practical support from Saudi Arabia weeks before the final vote. The Saudis arranged meetings with other Asian nations in Jidda last month, and, leaving nothing to chance, they lobbied on behalf of the North Americans until the final moments.
Hours earlier, and perhaps the biggest sign of the unpredictable nature of FIFA elections, the Netherlands, which had given the North American bid every indication that its vote was secured, announced it would support Morocco instead.
Two More for North America
Finland and Denmark both announced this morning that they would support the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup.
A Little Comedy to Start
The congress begins with two tests of the voting system that will become the star later. FIFA’s Secretary General, Fatma Samoura, asks the members to answer two questions: Is the 68th FIFA Congress taking place in Moscow? And, Is the 2018 World Cup taking place in Moscow. Troublingly, the correct answer — “yes” — gets only 95 percent. “I think those that have voted no have had a long night, or a short night, depending on how you want to see it,” FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, jokes before starting his welcoming remarks.
One other curious thing about those votes: 18 voters didn’t answer the first one, and 22 didn’t answer the second. Let’s hope it’s that they just couldn’t be bothered, instead of a problem with (or a misunderstanding of how to use) the electronic voting devices.
What Else Is on the Agenda Today?
The 2026 vote is the headliner, but FIFA has other matters on the agenda, too. There will be consideration of proposed changes to FIFA’s statutes, and the potential for the suspension or expulsion of members (Ghana’s soccer association, for example, is in the middle of a serious corruption crisis). FIFA will approve a budget — The Times got hold of those numbers yesterday — and plenty of arcane talk of rules and committee assignments.
World Cup 2026 Top Story Lines
• The race for the 2026 World Cup began last August. For a while, it appeared the North Americans — who had announced their intentions in April — would bid alone. But Morocco jumped in on the final day for countries to announce they would bid; the decision forced the North Americans to rewrite their news releases, but it did not diminish their role as the favorite.
• FIFA technical inspectors performed site inspections during visits to both bids in April. Their resulting report rated the North American bid as “very good” but declared the Moroccan effort merely “sufficient.” While the inspectors did not eliminate Morocco from the race, they noted pointed concerns about its ability to host.
• To win the right to host the World Cup, one bid must gain a simple majority of votes from FIFA’s member associations, who each get a say this year. It is the first time FIFA’s membership has had a say; in the past, the hosting rights were awarded in a secret vote of FIFA’s governing council.
• The North American bid is built around the words “unity, certainty and opportunity.” It is offering a choice from among 23 existing stadiums in 16 cities in the three countries. But its main selling point is money: the bid’s leaders have tempted voters with the promise of a record $11 billion payday for FIFA and its members.
• Morocco has bristled at all the talk of money, perhaps because there is no way it can match it. Instead, the Moroccans have billed their country’s “passion” for soccer and its proximity to valuable European television markets, where its matches would air in prime time.
• Morocco’s main problem is infrastructure; it would need to build nine stadiums for the event, not to mention roads, rail lines and hotels, among many other investments.