Football: North American bid denies underhand tactics in 2026 World Cup campaign

The joint bid from the US, Mexico and Canada are believed to be favoured by the Fifa hierarchy. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (THE GUARDIAN) - The North American bid team for the 2026 World Cup has defended the right of four US-governed territories to vote for the host of the tournament after a complaint was made to Fifa that it was a clear conflict of interest.

The Fifa hierarchy, including president Gianni Infantino, are widely thought to favour the joint bid from the US, Mexico and Canada . It is understood members of the Morocco delegation privately believe that football's governing body has repeatedly moved the goalposts with regard to the bidding regulations in an effort to derail their campaign.

The Morocco 2026 team has also written to Fifa to complain that the US territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands should not retain a vote but it has not yet received a response.

The North American bid denied it has gained an unfair advantage amid suggestions of underhand tactics employed by Fifa.

There are 211 Fifa member federations but only 207 of those are eligible to vote, with bidding nations excluded. But Fifa puts the onus on the federations themselves to declare a conflict of interest and none of the four American governed territories has done so.

In a statement issued to The Guardian, a Fifa spokesman said all member associations are entitled to "participate and vote" at the congress in Moscow in June, providing they do not have a conflict of interest, as laid out in the bidding regulations issued in October.

According to article 4.2 of those rules, a delegate with a conflict of interest "shall decline to participate in the voting process" for the 2026 World Cup. It adds that the delegate "shall notify the Fifa general secretariat immediately" of a conflict of interest.

A spokesman for the North American bid told The Guardian: "Fifa is organised around soccer federations and that's what allows you to vote. This is not who's under the reach of the Queen or who's a former French colonial authority. This is who has a soccer federation. The Faroe Islands has a soccer federation, Iran has a soccer federation and that's what this is about, a soccer tournament. This is not the United Nations."

It is understood there were also concerns in the Morocco camp about changes made to the bid regulations just 48 hours before final versions were due to be submitted in March. The revised rules stated, among other things, that the maximum drive between a host city and the nearest airport was reduced to 90 minutes when the journey between El Jadida, on Morocco's west coast, to Casablanca airport had been estimated at 91 minutes.

The revised rules also place an increased emphasis on ready built stadiums, which the United bid has. Morocco, on the other hand, would need to build nine new venues. But the North American bid rejected the suggestion of underhand tactics.

"If you compare to previous bids, Fifa passed the 2.0 reforms and clearly put an emphasis this time on their desire to use already constructed facilities," a spokesman for the bid said. "We've seen the problems with white elephants in Brazil and South Africa and Russia and Qatar. One of the distinguishing factors of our bid was to have already constructed stadiums.

"It's unfortunate if your bid is reliant on building new stadiums. But we have been subject to the same amount of scrutiny. The Fifa inspection taskforce toured four cities in North America and looked at everything. They've been transparent and open. You may not like how the rules of the campaign impact on your candidacy but those are the rules. I don't like challenges to the Fifa process because it suggests we are back in the old days and Fifa has gone to a great extent to make sure that is not the case."

Morocco were also understood to take a dim view of the involvement of Donald Trump in the race when Fifa rules strictly outlaw political interference. Trump tweeted: "The US has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don't support us (including at the United Nations)?"

The former France international Lilian Thuram, who is a supporter of the Morocco 2026 bid, said: "When I think about what the sport should bring to our children it's abiding by the rules, to play fair... Donald Trump is not on this path. I think that he's driven by a 'power game'.

"He believes in using power to bully and that the strongest can dominate the weaker and the richest can despise the poor," Thuram, who is the most capped player in French football history, added.

"What we need to understand is that his behaviour, with what he is saying and doing he thinks he is helping the bid. He is trying again to impose his views.

Thuram held an an imaginary gun to his head as he continued: "It's a power play and that's why I think it's important to pick people who play by the rules of the game. It's important to raise our children to think you go with the people who play by the rules of the game, otherwise they will grow up thinking the strongest is always right."

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