Fundraising event at Athletic Bilbao stadium, to raise money destined to Saharawi refugees suffering of famine through Development NGO PTM - Mundubat. Picture by Western Sahara / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0).A day before the first ball is kicked in Moscow to launch World Cup 2018, FIFA members will for the first time vote in public to decide the host of the 2026 tournament. High-ranking football executives at FIFA and the continental confederations widely consider Morocco’s 2026 World Cup – once considered a pipe dream – to be a serious rival to the joint North American bid of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The next two tournaments – in Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 respectively – have caused controversy for everything from human rights abuses to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. This downward trend will continue if Morocco lands the tournament in 2026 despite its occupation of Western Sahara.
The territory to Morocco’s south has suffered under more than four decades of colonial rule. Last year, FIFA adopted a “human rights policy” in a bid to repair its reputation for corruption and indifference to human suffering, but it has a long way to go to demonstrate that it is actually changing its ways. Although FIFA required 2026 bidders to commission and submit an independent human rights report, Morocco has denied repeated requests from the Associated Press to release it. Morocco’s brutal oppression of the people of Western Sahara is well documented – Freedom House has Western Sahara at the bottom of its “not free” list and human rights abuses are a daily reality. Monitoring groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been banned from the territory. Awarding Morocco the World Cup would prolong this injustice by sending a message to Morocco that it can proceed with business as usual.
In the race to land the tournament, the North American coalition has significant advantages: the lobbying power of three countries, abundant venues, and a proven track record hosting major international sporting events. But Morocco is the better location for TV coverage in Europe and the Middle East, and its compact geography and single currency sidestep the logistical headaches of its sprawling cross-border rival.
Then there’s the Trump factor. Football officials – including those from countries derided as “shitholes” by the American president – may find it hard to resist a vote against the US. That’s particularly important thanks to a change in FIFA voting procedures. Gone is the murky “executive committee” selection system. In its place, there will be a transparent public vote held in June 2018, where all 211 FIFA members – excluding the four candidates to host – will have their say. It’s uncharted territory for national federations, many of which will come under political pressure in the face of this new public scrutiny. Many expect the 53 voting African federations to line up behind the Moroccan bid, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion.
In the diplomatic world, Western Sahara is often dismissed as a frozen conflict
The issue of Western Sahara is divisive on the continent. The African Union, which Morocco only rejoined in 2017 after a 33 year absence, has been responsible for many of the most forthright criticisms of Morocco’s conduct in Western Sahara. Official AU documents still state that "the African Union considers Western Sahara to be under colonial occupation by Morocco.”
In the diplomatic world, Western Sahara is often dismissed as a frozen conflict, but international law, countless UN resolutions, and a clear moral imperative are on the side of the people of Western Sahara. Global apathy means the Moroccans see little reason to negotiate in good faith; there is next to no cost imposed for their occupation. Meanwhile, Morocco continues to play an active and visible role on the global stage, hosting events ranging from the UN climate talks in 2016 to the FIFA Club World Cup in 2014.
Western Sahara is divided by a massive sand “berm” which cuts a swathe through the desert more than 2,000 kilometers long. The wall is manned by tens of thousands of Moroccan troops and densely covered with landmines that have killed or maimed hundreds of Saharawis. On one side of the berm, Saharawi refugees have lived for more than forty years in refugee camps along the Algerian border. On the other, the Saharawi population lives under the brutal thumb of Moroccan security forces. They are treated worse than second class citizens in their own homeland, denied economic opportunities and prevented from speaking about the very existence of their country. Brave Saharawi activists gather to protest these conditions and advocate for their right to self-determination despite the inevitability of a violent response.
Morocco has a track record of using football to legitimize its occupation of Western Sahara
Morocco has a track record of using football to legitimize its occupation of Western Sahara. In 2016, Diego Maradona and other former stars took part in the ironically named “Match for Peace.” The exhibition match – organized by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation – in the occupied city of El Aauin was held to commemorate Morocco’s 1975 invasion of Western Sahara. Italian club AC Milan also stumbled into the Moroccan propaganda machine last year when it opened a football academy in the city of El Aauin, which the club described as being part of Morocco.
Disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter has endorsed the Moroccan bid, tweeting that “it is time for Africa again!” as though awarding the tournament to Morocco would be a victory for the continent. But normalizing the occupation of the last colony in Africa would be anything but. The world’s greatest sporting spectacle should not be used to perpetuate the profound injustice in Western Sahara.