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Why Morocco’s sustainable World Cup bid shouldn’t be ignored

In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen previous major event hosts, Morocco has chosen to pursue a sustainable model for its 2026 World Cup bid. Here, SportsPro assesses the merits of a new kind of host offer.

by Tom Bassam
Why Morocco’s sustainable World Cup bid shouldn’t be ignored

Sitting in the ornate dining room at the Hotel Selman in Marrakech, former World Cup winner Lillian Thuram offered a profound assessment of the differences between the two countries bidding to host the 2026 Fifa World Cup.

On the topic of Donald Trump’s recent input in the bidding process, Thuram described the US president disparagingly as an “image of the society we live in”, espousing the view that it is the responsibility of everyone to go back to defending more noble values or risk teaching our children that the rich and the powerful are always right.

Without saying so explicitly, Thuram - not an official ambassador for Morocco 2026 - clearly believes there is a moral superior of the two bids, and Team Trump is not it.

Historically, romantic notions and morals have not been high on Fifa’s list of priorities when awarding its showpiece tournament. However, to dismiss the Moroccan bid as purely idealistic would be to do it a huge disservice. As a bid it accepts its limitations in comparison to the big money offerings on the other side of the Atlantic, but instead it presents an alternative take on the potential of an international sporting event to aid a country’s development. Instead of sending the World Cup to a country currently run by a climate change doubter, Morocco genuinely believes it can provide a tournament which offers environmental sustainability.

In 2011, Morocco altered its constitution to include sustainable development, stopped subsidising fossil fuels to make renewables more competitive, and started welcoming private investments in the clean energy sector. By 2030 it expects to be well ahead of the Paris Accord targets for generating renewable energy and is on course to hit the 40 per cent target by 2020. Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Accord in June last year. This is your narrative.

The Moroccan bid is precipitated on offering a shot in the arm to the country’s ongoing drive for sustainable infrastructure, accelerating strategic transport projects such as the Marrakesh-Ouarzazate tunnel and the high-speed rail development on a new Marrakesh-Agadir line. Those are two of nine substantial developments going ahead regardless of what decision Fifa makes about 2026, but also indicators of the Moroccan ambition to be a leader in the sector.

By way of example, in their bid book the Morocco team boast that the World Economic Forum ranks the country as the continental leader in rail infrastructure and later this year Africa’s first high-speed line will open on a 200km track between Tangier and Kenitra - the first phase of a wider 1,500km project. All in all, pretty impressive.

Under construction

That said, the key element of any World Cup is the stadia and here there is quite literally a lot of work to do. All 14 potential World Cup venues require differing levels of development. The five existing ones will be upgraded, while nine need to be built. Three of those are already in progress with the other six legacy modular stadia (LMS) planned with the idea of providing sustainability post-tournament.

All of that on a construction budget of US$3 billion seems optimistic, especially considering that figure is part of that ambitious US$12.6 billion public investment package that also includes transport projects and hospital building. In response to those doubts the Morocco bid team point to low construction costs; pre-signed stadium agreements for publicly-owned land; government guarantees on financing; with the security of a stable currency; and economic forecasts of long-term controlled inflation around two per cent.

Even if Morocco has its numbers right, the United Bid can fall back on a plethora of shiny ultra-modern stadia that already exist, as well as a well-established infrastructure. But then Fifa’s selection process - however flawed that may be -  has never shied away from rewarding bids using the World Cup to grow the game in its country.

What Morocco can also offer is a new vision for a developing nation bidding for a major tournament, one that does not require spending beyond its means and fulfilling promises that serve as a detriment to the winning host in the long-term.

Central to this offer are the six 46,000-seater LMS stadiums in Casablanca, Marrakech, Meknes, Nador, El Jadida and Ouarzazate. They have been designed especially for the tournament and then to be part-dismantled in order to leave a suitable venue in its place. The ‘white elephants’ that scatter Greece, Brazil and even Beijing are not welcome in Morocco’s plans for sustainability. The bid team even promise that the stands not needed post-World Cup will be distributed in their own country and across other African nations.

Developed with consideration of their environmental impact, and meeting BREEAM and HQE certification, the LMS all share identical floor plans across all sites, with a fixed concrete base composed of a large forecourt extending to the lower (and only non-removable) stand, which together house the changing rooms and technical areas. On top of that are the various temporary stands, which can be dismantled post-tournament to fulfil each venue’s needs. On each corner are buildings accommodating the various spaces required for the event, such as hospitality boxes, the media centre, volunteer centre, staff restaurant and Fifa office spaces. To provide variety, the facade and roof can be fully customised from one city to the next - akin to customising your smartphone with a pretty cover.

The concept for the Legacy Modular Stadia being proposed as part of the Morocco 2026 bid

More eye-catching is the promise that these LMS will be “100 per cent environmentally responsible”. They have been designed to feature photovoltaic cells generating up to 224 MWh of electricity per year for the local area; as well as a number of other green features such as rainwater recovery; solar water heaters; waterless urinals and on-site waste management.

Although flexible, these are not just temporary structures. The stadium in Casablanca would retain its full capacity post-World Cup but they can all be downsized to the minimum 20,000 seats, as in Nador, or other possible capacities in between with the option to increase again should there be sufficient demand.

Local clubs will serve as anchor tenants, in charge of identifying their capacity requirements and other needs. The bid team envision the walkways in the reduced LMS being used as sports areas - not just confined to soccer.

The LMS in Marrakesh, Morocco’s number one tourism destination, has been earmarked for transformation into a multi-purpose 25,000-seat indoor arena for sport, entertainment and conventions, fulfilling a need for a country currently without such a facility.

“The idea of the legacy of the modular stadium came about for two reasons,” Hicham El Amrani, Morocco's bid chief, tells SportsPro. “First, because Morocco has been engaged nationally on a policy of sustainability and protection of the environment being convinced that if we do not take action now in the very long to protect the next generation and protecting Earth it will be a major issue.

“In addition to this the target is to get 52 per cent of the energy mix coming from renewable energy by 2030.

“When it comes to the World Cup, therefore, on top of the policy of Morocco, is the need to make sure we have environmentally friendly buildings, sporting infrastructure-wise, and also that those are in line with how the community can use them in the long-run.

“We have seen the actual experience, and not always good experience, of ending up with ‘white elephants’ that communities and cities cannot manage anymore because it will cost them too much money, it’s too big a capacity and not the ability to play something else other than football in it.

“We came up with the concept right in the brainstorming before even coming a candidate. You cannot become a candidate and then start thinking ‘Well, what do I do now?’

“There were financial and environmental studies undertaken before Morocco decided to move ahead and become a candidate that started more than a year ago. We needed to be sure about the feasibility of those concepts, the technicalities of it, who is best at putting them in place, how we can use them afterwards, how we can redistribute the different seats.”

Environmentally speaking

El Amrani would not be drawn on the environmental merits of the Moroccan bid in comparison to its North American rival but it is all in the literature. As opposed to the sprawling and unavoidable car parks of the behemothic and largely out-of-town American stadia, the Moroccan bid promises that public transport will play a central role in delivering fans to games with roads assigned specific lanes for fan transportation shuttles and a “no spectator parking” policy in place.

In addition to the sustainable LMS, under construction already is a new stadium in  Oujda, which is designed to be energy-positive thanks to its photovoltaic roof, producing more electricity than the venue requires to run.

In fairness to the United Bid, many of its stadia boast impressive environmental credentials too. However, the scale of the three joint-bidding countries means the travel required by teams, fans and officials over the course of the tournament would necessitate some serious number fiddling to get anywhere near the projected carbon footprint of a Moroccan World Cup.

Here the geographical location of Morocco provides a significant advantage, with the country’s proximity to Europe and its compact size meaning the tournament would produce far less than the projected 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide expected to be pumped out at this summer’s tournament. Close to 75 per cent of those expected emissions will be from international flights to Russia as well as travel between vastly spread host cities, and there is no reason to believe that a North American tournament with a similarly wide geographical breadth would produce any less.

That geographical advantage is something that the Moroccan team was keen to stress but they did not hide away from the more challenging aspects of their bid either. In its recent pre-vote report Fifa inspectors labelled Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid as ‘high risk’ due to a lack of infrastructure, but speaking long before that verdict was reached El Amrani insisted that the boost a Moroccan World Cup in 2026 would offer the country in terms of providing impetus for its development plans meant that was not an issue.

“The beauty of the Morocco bid is that it allows a fantastic boost and acceleration to those [national infrastructure] projects,” he explains.

“Getting the World Cup for us is a project that will last eight years and 32 days, not just 32 days. The whole objective is not just to organise a 32-day competition but also to carry on the projects that have been planned but can now go on a much, much faster pace with the securing of the guarantees and the funding that goes with it – with or without the World Cup.

“Also, the ability to have the spotlight of the world towards us for eight years will help us become even better at implementing those projects. That will allow us as well to transform any weaknesses we have into stronger legacies for the country and the exchanges we want to have on the African continent.”

“Getting the World Cup for us is a project that will last eight years and 32 days, not just 32 days

Money talks

Sadly, instead of the environmental merits of the Moroccan World Cup bid all the talk since the Fifa family descended on Russia this week has been of money. Questions have been raised by the Moroccans over the outlandish promises made by the United Bid over revenue projections of US$14.3 billion for Fifa if 2026 went its way.

"That doesn't correspond either to historical facts or future extrapolation, it's an exercise that goes beyond that," Morocco Football Federation president Fouzi Lekjaa told members of the press in Moscow on Monday, and not without good reason. The New York Times reported last week that a Fifa evaluation of the costs associated with hosting a 48-team tournament deem the United Bid's forecast overly optimistic. In key European and Asian markets many kick-off times for a World Cup in North America would be out of prime time, making the United Bid’s media revenue target harder to reach. The Fifa evaluation estimates broadcast rights for 2026 will be worth US$3.6 billion, far less than the US$5.5 billion the Americans are promising.

A study conducted by international consulting firm Roland Berger for the Moroccan bid estimated a profit for Fifa of US$5 billion, which is obviously a huge drop-off from its rivals but one the Africans feel is far more realistic.

A World Cup in Morocco could offer different commercial opportunities as a result of its green approach

An interesting commercial aspect of the upcoming World Cup in Russia has been the uptake from Chinese sponsors in filling gaps left by western companies unwilling to associate themselves with soccer’s scandal-ridden governing body and its controversial host. Whilst there can be little doubt that a tournament in North America would attract a raft of household names back into the fold, an environmentally friendly event would also open up new opportunities. Fifa handle the World Cup sponsorship but El Amrani is sure the Moroccan offer could entice an energy partner with a different profile to the likes of Gazprom.

“[Attracting different kinds of sponsors with an environmentally focused bid] is an opportunity of course. But all of the sponsors and key partners of Fifa are actually secured by Fifa,” he says.

“Companies are already extremely interested from all different business categories and it is something that will be looked at once the decision is taken. But of course green economy is booming as well, especially on the continent that has the opportunity to take that factor into account as early as possible before they fully mature. That is a wonderful opportunity we have and we want to be leaders on that front on the African continent.”

For all its flaws and question marks, of which there are no shortage, the Moroccans do at least offer something different to the major tournament bids that have dominated the international sporting landscape in recent years. This is not about bigger, better, faster, stronger. Instead, the merits of the offer from the African peninsula are sustainability, responsibility and reason.

We don’t need to have 100,000-seaters all across the country, we need to think about the use being made afterwards

In reality, Morocco is facing a daunting task in defeating a bid promising lavish riches and that is so heavily favoured by the president of the body awarding the event. To its credit the Moroccan bid has not tried to match its grandiose North American rival, instead opting to offer a contrast. Perhaps the award of the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles’ ‘green bid’ can be a turning point for governing bodies in awarding its biggest events, if so then Morocco could provide the model for what a future World Cup bid should look like in a developing country.

El Amrani certainly thinks a win for his team would send a strong message out to those hoping of hosting the World Cup’s centenary edition in 2030.

He says: “It will be a benchmark to bring the World Cup back to a more humane, more human, more authentic experience. We don’t need to have 100,000-seaters all across the country, we need to think about the use being made afterwards, we need to be responsible in how much we spend – without touching the quality and requirements needed – just be more smart about how we spend the money, how we use it and how we generate return on investment earlier on. Use that opportunity to push for a shift of mindset into a more environmentally friendly attitude of our citizens as well, that is a great goal to have.”

Hard to argue with the sentiment.