When Sepp Blatter, now enjoying an enforced retirement in his native Switzerland, looks back on his long and rather controversial career in football administration, he can perhaps point to the moment it all started to go wrong for both him and the organization with which he made his name.
To that moment just over seven years ago, when he pulled the names of the winning hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals out of envelopes on stage at FIFA's Zurich HQ. To his announcement in that moment to award the 2022 finals to tiny Qatar over the United States. To the intense level of scrutiny to which that moment exposed FIFA. And to the scarcely believable game of influence and power politics revealed because of that scrutiny—everything from huge gas pipeline deals conducted between heads of state to the Machiavellian plays by various intelligence services.
The fallout from that moment has directly and indirectly touched thousands of people and led to numerous corruption scandals, trials in a New York city courthouse, political intrigues at the highest levels in the Middle East, resignations and even jail time. The sheer weight of scandal eventually led to Blatter's removal as president of FIFA and, later, banishment from the game. His likely successor, Michel Platini, also fell from grace.
It can all be traced back to that moment, that envelope.
And seven years later, we are about to do it all again.
March 16 was FIFA's deadline to receive bid books from countries wanting to host the 2026 World Cup finals. It is to be a two-horse race: The long-planned joint bid between the U.S., Mexico and Canada (heavily skewed toward the U.S., who would host the vast majority of games). And a last-minute bid from Morocco, who didn't even have a logo, slogan or official website at the start of 2018.
The North African kingdom has already failed in four previous attempts to bid for the finals, including in 1988 when they narrowly lost to the U.S. for the right to host the 1994 World Cup. In one respect, 2010 looks much like 2018. A superior U.S bid with a lot of powerful supporters is up against an underdog, upstart campaign from the Arab world looking to upset the odds.
But that is where the similarities end.
For one, the failed experiment where two World Cups were awarded at the same time has ended, largely due to the amount of vote-swapping and horse-trading back in 2010. (Although FIFA did still issue an integrity warning in January, stating that any bids for the 2026 World Cup should not use inducements to buy votes.) A new FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, has been elected on a ticket where he said he wanted to clean up the game and expand the World Cup finals. 2026 will also be the first World Cup to host 48 teams.
But perhaps most importantly, the voting procedure has significantly changed. The power has been taken away from the tainted (and now rebranded) 24-person-strong executive committee.
Well over 50 percent of those who voted in 2010 have either resigned or been removed in disgrace over allegations of corruption. Now the power has been handed to FIFA's assembly. Each of the 207 non-bidding football associations gets one vote of equal weight, whether it is American Samoa or Russia. The vote takes place at the FIFA Congress on June 13 in Moscow, just before this summer's World Cup in Russia.
The joint North American bid has long been the overwhelming favorite. It wasn't much of a surprise when U.S. broadcaster Fox (along with Spanish-language network Telemundo) won the TV rights for both the 2022 and 2026 finals. The deal was made without rival networks being asked to bid, prompting accusations it was given as compensation for Qatar 2022 being moved from a prime summer TV schedule to a winter one that clashes with the hugely popular—and lucrative—NFL calendar. The fact that the contract also has a provision to pay FIFA just over a quarter of a billion dollars more if a U.S. bid is picked to host 2026 didn't help perceptions that a North American bid was already in the bag.
But then, as one former high-ranking FIFA official explained on condition of anonymity, came a black swan event that ended the certainty: "Trump has opened the door for Morocco."
The U.S. president's language and policy on immigration have done much to alienate potential FIFA voters, the former FIFA official said. Trump's travel bans, which have targeted Muslim countries, have gone down badly in Asia. And federations in Central America and Africa are unlikely to have been won over to a U.S.-led 2026 bid after Trump reportedly dubbed some of them "s--thole" countries.
The Confederation of African Football, for example, has 54 associations at FIFA and will have 53 votes (Morocco, like the U.S., Mexico and Canada, cannot vote). The Asian Football Confederation has 47 members. Between them, that is nearly half of all available votes.
"Before Morocco, [the U.S.-led bid] looked, to take a phrase from another sport, like a slam dunk," said Alan Rothenberg, the former president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and the man credited with making USA '94 a resounding commercial success. "International geopolitical issues come into play," he added. "Some of the things the current administration has said or done would cause concern in some parts of the world, and everyone has an equal vote."
Rothenberg is not officially involved with the bid, but he is an unabashed champion of it. He has offered his advice informally to figures with the USSF. He's also been involved in trying to bring as much of the 2026 bid to L.A. as possible. He recently spoke at a city council budget committee to make a case for the World Cup's economic benefits.
"I don't think FIFA has ever seen a bid so complete and so ready," he said. "Unlike 1994, we have cities now experienced in hosting international soccer matches. We are absolutely ready to go."
The world punishing Donald J. Trump wouldn't be the only reason to vote against the North American bid, though. Morocco, which held a launch event for its bid in Casablanca last Saturday, logistically would be a much more compact World Cup—significantly cheaper for traveling fans who will be able to go by train to many games. Also, the vast majority of countries that qualify (and their fans) will be within three hours of its time zone (GMT/BST).
Also worth noting is the personnel behind the scene. Mike Lee, an experienced communications expert who's skilled in the dark art of public relations, is moulding the bid's message. He had played a similar role during Qatar's long-shot 2022 bid. There is also Morocco's deep footballing culture, where tens of thousands of supporters regularly attend matches. Wydad Casablanca are the current champions of Africa. And, of course, Morocco will be going to Russia 2018 while Team USA has to sit it out.
On the other hand, whereas the U.S. has a plethora of stadiums to choose from, Morocco's stadium infrastructure is theoretical. The bid book contains a plan for modular stadiums, which would be environmentally friendly and easily taken apart for post-tournament use. Also in the bid book: The 2026 World Cup is estimated to cost Morocco $15.8 billion—around 80 percent of that from state funds.
Before June's vote, FIFA will inspect both countries and weigh its report heavily in favor of infrastructure.
"Morocco is very interesting because they've bid several times before and no one can doubt the sincerity they have. So they should not be taken lightly," Rothenberg said. "The difficulty for FIFA is to assess everything yet to be built at a cost of $16 billion. Does Morocco have the ability to do that? There is past history. In Brazil, there was serious difficulty in getting the infrastructure ready. But you can't fault the sincerity of their desire."
Yet even an outstanding technical bid supported by FIFA is no guarantee of success. Qatar received a damning technical assessment before the 2010 vote—largely due to the fact that the summer months can have temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit—and still won.
"The members wanted it in Qatar," said Rothenberg. "Everyone can vote how they want."
The unexpected competition from Morocco has also led to more scrutiny of the North American bid. Shortly before they submitted their bid book last week, four major cities announced they were pulling out of hosting duties: Minneapolis; Vancouver; Glendale, Arizona; and, perhaps most damagingly, Chicago. All felt FIFA's terms for hosting the event were a price too high to pay, including tax exemptions, legal immunity, zero legal liability and a clause that would insist that unlimited amounts of foreign currency could be shipped in and out of the country.
"FIFA could not provide a basic level of certainty on some major unknowns that put our city and taxpayers at risk," said Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement that laid out why Chicago, which hosted the opening game in 1994, was pulling out from 2026. "The uncertainty for taxpayers, coupled with FIFA's inflexibility and unwillingness to negotiate, were clear indications that further pursuit of the bid wasn't in Chicago's best interests."
FIFA's legal and financial demands have long been controversial, although the International Olympic Committee, the NFL and other sports franchises in the U.S. have used similar methods to extract public money for their operations in the past.
"The NFL has demanded everything from tax waivers to free billboards to free city police for the Super Bowl, and prospective Olympic sites like Boston have been backing out in droves since it became clear how ridiculous the IOC's demands are," explains Neil deMause, who chronicles how franchise owners and big international organizations demand public cash for their businesses in his Field of Schemes blog. The problem, though, is the competition when it comes to cities wanting the prestige to host a franchise or, in this case, an event like the World Cup. "There are plenty more suckers available. FIFA still has 23 cities lined up for the North American World Cup bid, but the dynamic overall is a pretty common one now in the mega-event industry."
That the vote itself will take place the day before the start of the World Cup in Russia might also prove problematic given the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. The U.S. losing the right to host the World Cup on Russian soil would be quite the bloody nose, and it's not as if World Cup bids have been above that kind of behaviour in the past.
Bonita Mersiades, a whistleblower who worked for Australia's failed 2022 bid, described in her book Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way how the 2010 Zurich vote was awash with spooks engaged in espionage. "The intelligence agencies that were there said it was really noticeable when the Russians turned up," she recently told the BBC World Service's World Football. "Because no one could hear or see anything." The Russians, she explained, "had jammed everyone else's devices." The role of one former MI6 agent has since become public after a much bigger scandal. Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Trump Dossier, worked closely with the England 2018 bid by providing information on competitors.
The U.S. role in prosecuting the upper echelons of FIFA has not gone unnoticed, either. Those indictments have also implicated Morocco in alleged bribery connected to hosting the 1998 and 2010 World Cup finals.
Rothenberg was working as a consultant for Morocco's 2010 bid, although he denies seeing anything untoward at the time. ("Not by Morocco," he said.) According to a 2015 Sunday Times report (h/t ESPN), Morocco might have actually won the vote to host the 2010 finals, but it lost out to South Africa due to an avalanche of corruption and bribes.
"I pray to god that isn't the case, that we see none of the illegal, moral, financial shenanigans that plagued this bid process in the past," Rothenberg said. "Given the certainty of a successful [joint U.S., Mexico, Canada] 2026 World Cup bid and uncertainty in Morocco, and given the clear huge economic benefit differential for FIFA, can all the countries ignore geopolitics factors and look to FIFA? From a FIFA standpoint, it should be clear it should be America."
FIFA's inspection team, heavily weighted with European officials, might still have a say before the vote, and it could even exclude Morocco, whose 2026 bid team declined to offer Bleacher Report an official response for this article despite several requests.
A spokesperson for Morocco 2026 did deny all previous accusations of corruption surrounding Morocco's failed bids to host the 1998 and 2010 finals as "unfounded allegations" and pointed out that the leadership and staff working on the 2026 bid are new and had not worked on previous campaigns. "The new, more open bid rules and transparent voting are good for FIFA and football and we very much support this," the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, Sepp Blatter also has an opinion on the vote. Given that his tenure as FIFA president is likely to be defined by the FBI's ongoing investigation into the organization, the identity of the bid he backs is perhaps not surprising:
He later expanded his views in an interview with Agence France-Presse. "If Morocco is able to organize this World Cup with 48 teams," he said (h/t World Soccer Talk), "then it must be chosen."
Morocco's late challenge, Trump, the FBI and even perhaps even the political crisis between the U.S. and Russia—it's all added some uncertainty to the race. "I'm very hopeful that North America will win the bid," said Rothenberg. "But I'm concerned about the Morocco bid."
Either way, just like in 2010, there will no doubt be controversy long after the envelope has been opened.