Jalla! Jalla! Morocco calling

 

When the Morocco 2026 bid committee invites you to an International Press Event, they don’t hold back on the luxury.

By Lars Johnsen

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Suddenly there was a call on the buzzer.
“Temperature check pool,” the guy said.
I hastily threw on something decent and buzzed him in. It was the second visit in short space of time, though exactly how much time I’m not sure. Who keeps track when you’re soaking up on a sun bed accompanied only by an ice cold Casablanca Lager anyway?
The first guy had come to replenish the minibar. I had emptied it for beer the night before, the day of my arrival.

This trip had started roughly a week before when I had received an email from Vero Communications, the company hired to advise the Morocco 2026 World Cup bid. Would Josimar be interested in attending an International Press Event in Morocco, all expenses taken care of?
We sure were.
The Sunday of Easter week I boarded a business class flight worth 1200 euro from Oslo via Frankfurt to Casablanca, was met by a member of the bid committee at the airport and driven to the luxury Mandarin Oriental resort in Marrakech for the start of the event. My dark suit and tie clad chauffeur – a supporter of the storied football club Raja Casablanca – made the 220 kilometre trip in record time, the speedometer needle only sporadically dipping below the 140 mark.

“Lying in 20 hectares of fragrant gardens and olive groves, Mandarin Oriental Marrakech is a five-star luxury resort only minutes from the city centre. With excellent facilities and world-class dining, we offer the ultimate Moroccan escape,” the resort boasts on its website.
They got that one just about right. Though it’s easy to get lost in the maze of buildings, fragrant gardens and olive groves inside the enormous resort, especially when darkness has fallen. Not to worry, there’s always a resort employee ready to let you ride on his golf cart and take you to your villa.
Yes, villa. Not a room, not a suite, not even an apartment, but villa – a “Mandarin Pool Villa”, that is, complete with outdoor living and relaxation areas, heated pool, jacuzzi and steamroom.
The rates start at 1200 euro per night. I stayed for two. Later, as the invited press pack moved on to Casablanca, we were accommodated at the Hyatt Regency in the centre of the bustling city. The rooms were 200 euro a pop.

The huge door opened and the pool guy strolled in, smiling. They all seem to smile in Morocco.
“Trente-huit”, he proclaimed as he pulled the thermometer out of the jacuzzi.
“Très bien,” I replied and smiled back. When the huge door shut behind him, moving on to check the temperature at someone else’s pool, I went back to being indecent and slumped into the 38-degree hot jacuzzi with an ice cold bottle of Casablanca Lager in my hand. Morocco baby! Morocco!

Multi-coloured socks
The official programme of the International Press Event had kicked off earlier in the day of my rendez-vous with a beer bottle in the jacuzzi.

At 10:45 the press invitees had summoned at the reception area of the Mandarin Oriental overlooking the resort’s communal pool area. Clear blue skies and the snow-covered Atlas mountains provided a majestic backdrop as the Vero Communications team shook hands and smalltalked with their invited press hacks before leading us to a meeting room on the far side of the pool and bar area to hear Hicham El Amrani, CEO of the Morocco 2026 bid committee, give a presentation of the Moroccan quest to win the hosting rights of the holiest of holy grails in the world of sport, the FIFA World Cup.

Four times the Moroccans have bid to host the event. Four times the FIFA president have opened the envelope and read out the name of some other country.


It was Mike Lee, the Gérard Depardieu lookalike chairman of Vero Communications, who started the show and welcomed the attending press corps. Lee, dressed in a white suit and wearing multi-coloured socks, as he would throughout this press tour, has grown out of his working class roots in Sunderland in the North East of England to be one of sport’s most influential players. As the Premier League started its path from simply being English football’s top tier to being the global sports brand it is today, it was with Lee as media and political strategist, before becoming director of communication and public affairs at UEFA. In 2006 he founded Vero Communications. The company has been involved in winning bids of many of the world’s major sporting events – like the Qatar 2022 World Cup, the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and the Rio 2016 and Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. The company has helped rugby sevens and surfing into the Olympic programme. Vero is now working on making the Faroe Islands an Olympic nation, its athletes thus far competing under the Danish flag.

Mike Lee, recipient of the Order of the British Empire in 2005, has also successfully advised candidates for the presidency of governing bodies of world sport – current FIFA president Gianni Infantino being among them.

“Our role is to act as advisers, working closely with bid leaders, to help with the campaign strategy and the narrative of a bid, in particular with international communications and international media,” he explained to Josimar on the last day of the event, without a hint of a North East of England accent left, his childhood dialect washed away after winning a scholarship to a private school and later studying at Oxford.

Though he remains a supporter of his hometown club, which seems destined to be relegated to the third tier of English football.

Vero’s strategy concerning the international media became crystal clear as I checked in to the 1200 euro per night luxury resort. As for the narrative of the bid, well, that’s what El Amrani was about to deliver.

Sweet-spot location
Hicham El Amrani welcomed the visiting press to the “land of plenty”, a “land of football”.
“When I say football, I talk about the values it brings – of openness and respect. As part of the Moroccan DNA, civilisation and heritage, we have always had the willingness to welcome people.
“Morocco is a diverse nation. It is an Arab nation, an African nation, a Berber nation, a nation with a European heritage and influence.”
The bid narrative is built on five pillars: for the players, for the fans, for FIFA, for Morocco and Africa, for the world.
“I insist on the first two. Of course it is important to have a strong profitability for a World Cup, but very often we forget about the two most critical pillars of the game. The players, without whom you couldn’t have a game. And the fans who attend the games.”

The close proximity to Europe is the Moroccan bid’s biggest selling point. It’s where most of the international players are based and where most of the tournament’s visiting fans will come from. Morocco is 14 kilometres from the European mainland. Casablanca is a three hour flight from Frankfurt.

Soft-spoken and with greying hair, El Amrani promises a compact World Cup, with all venues inside a 550 kilometre radius of Casablanca airport. With high-speed rail lines and a further upgrade of the country’s motorways planned, fans can travel from one city to the next without trouble and attend a different match every day – no flights or change of timezones needed. Every visitor will feel that he or she has stepped into a festival of football when entering Morocco in 2026.

As for TV viewership, Morocco has a “sweet spot location”, being in the same time zone as London.
And of course, 50 per cent of FIFA’s income stem from TV rights – of which two thirds comes out of Europe.

According to El Amrani, speaking English with a slight American tilt, the country welcomes 11 million tourists a year. An invasion of travelling fans during one month in June/July 2026 – no problem!
After all, three million people belonging to the Moroccan diaspora visit the country every summer.

The representatives of the Morocco bid team, the Vero people and ten journalists hung onto every single word from El Amrani, who turned out to be a very pleasant person to be around.

Several more journalists would arrive as the party later would move from Marrakech to Casablanca. 
The posse would include press from China, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Nigeria, Russia, Norway and the UK.

Shithole countries
It is a formidable task facing El Amrani and his team. The opponent is the “United bid” of Mexico, Canada and the United States – one football nation, one politically stable country and one with top-notch facilities and stadia whose currency is the world’s gold standard.
El Amrani, a graduate of the American University in Paris and FIFA Master programme, spent eight years at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) until Issa Hayatou, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), lured him home to the African continent. He served five years as secretary-general of CAF, based in Cairo.

Navigating the Cairo traffic daily for five years and keeping his sanity is no mean feat. Or maybe you need to be slightly insane to take on the job of leading perennial World Cup bid losers Morocco’s surge to win the hosting rights.

He’s not allowed to comment on the opponents, but when the tape recorders are turned off, notepads folded and the number of Casablanca Lager bottles on the hotel bar tables increases, it’s clear the Moroccan bid team is annoyed with FIFA and the whole bidding process.

In January, FIFA stopped Morocco from presenting its bid at the CAF congress, an hour before El Amrani was scheduled to speak. Yet in the same week the “United bid” had presented its bid to the leaders of the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA), a subgroup of CAF.

Also in January, FIFA president Gianni Infantino had, in the opinion of the Moroccans, blatantly declared his support for the North Americans.

“Joint nominations are good, and the fact that Canada, the United States and Mexico are united in a common project is a positive message,” Infantino said.
Infantino, once a friend of Vero’s, now a foe. Such is life in international football politics.

As this article is being published, a FIFA evaluation task force is on its way to Morocco. Its mandate, whom it answers to, its scoring system – well, it’s all a bit in the dark.
This, along with amending bid criteria shortly before the “bid book” was to be submitted, are points of irritation for the Moroccans.
The “bid book”, which Vero had a help in putting together, is the 400-page document outlining all aspects and details of the bid.
It is, as everyone present at this International Press Event agreed, a document only a handful of people worldwide is likely to read. Among those who will be casting the votes, only a few are even expected to have read the summary.

The voting on the World Cup hosting rights will not be made by a selected committee, as previously, but through an open vote by all member associations. A positive step by FIFA, as Mike Lee put it.
But, to complicate matters, FIFA has introduced a third option on the ballot: “None of the above.”
Instead of having to choose between two bids, any member association unsure of which bid is the best, can simply vote for the third option.
If “none of the above” gets 104 ticks, the whole process has to start over.

“The dynamic of the voting process changes completely”, El Amrani said over a few beers in the Mandarin Oriental bar.

But there is hope on the horizon, stemming mostly from non-football related politics. Donald Trump’s comments about shithole countries, delivered after a visit from the prime minister of Norway, wasn’t exactly well-received in countries with predominantly brown-skinned populations. Neither was his travel ban, affecting countries with a Muslim majority.

Trump’s statements in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, blaming “both sides”, after neonazis and the Ku Klux Klan had marched chanting racist slogans in a US state where Africans once had been bought and sold like cattle, won’t help either when voting nations set up their lists of pros and cons.

It is called “United” bid, but as the Vero people, the Morocco 2026 bid team and the freeloading journalists all agreed on: “It is a US bid”.

As the first night ended with one of the many two-hour long, three-course, five-star meals the press pack would experience during the stay in Morocco, the talk turned to US-Russia relations. That day the US expelled 60 Russian diplomats, relating to the Russians’ alleged poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence office Sergei Skripal in England.

The vote and announcement of the winning 2026 bid takes place in Moscow on 13 June, two days before world football’s showpiece event kicks off in St Petersburg.
Will Vladimir Putin, ahem, allow a US-led bid to be announced as winners of the 2026 hosting rights on Russian soil?
Football – so often used for political willy-waving. And Russia have a knack of wanting to show the size of theirs.

Shantytowns
“Jalla! Jalla!,” a Moroccan voice shouted, using the Arabic term for “let’s go” to usher the press boys (yes, only men at this point) to get on the bus when it was time to leave Marrakech behind.
When everyone had boarded and the bus slowly moved out of the Mandarin Oriental compound, a rep from the bid team walked down the aisle making sure everyone knew the name of the wifi network and the password.

Wherever we went, on the bus, at restaurants, a mobile router is always with us. Gotta make sure the newshounds stay connected.

Marrakech is definitely a city of contrasts. Outside the gated spa and relaxation resorts, you’ll find the proper Morocco, people wearing traditional clothing of the Berber people doing what seems to be the town’s favourite pastimes: sitting on park benches or anything resembling park benches, or scurrying around on mopeds, quite often whole families clutched together on the one-seated vehicles. In the narrow alleys of the old town – the medina – the scents of spice and leather fill the air, sometimes mixed in with exhaust-fumes from mopeds slaloming through the tourists-filled area.

Our first port of call in Casablanca was the Tahiti Club beachfront restaurant by the Atlantic and another two-hour long, three-course, five-star meal – seafood this time, before we stopped for a tour of the Hassan II mosque, it too overlooking the Atlantic. It is the world’s third largest mosque and accommodates 25 000 believers – 20 000 men and 5000 women. Every square centimetre of the sacred building is handcrafted. In the event of Morocco winning the 2026 hosting rights, an International Broadcast Centre is planned outside the mosque.

On the way Casablanca we had passed what could be described as slum housing, single ones dotted around the countryside or clustered together as shantytowns.


A conference room in the Hyatt Regency had been made ready for a press briefing with El Amrani and the chairman of the Morocco 2026 bid committee, the minister for trade and com
merce, Moulay Hafid Elalamy.

Their presentation was very much a recap of what we heard the day before in Marrakech, with the added weight of it being pitched by a government minister.

The 2026 World Cup in Morocco is a 16 billion-dollar project. Though, as Elalamy is keen to point out, the cost of the stadiums and other expenses directly related to football is a mere 3,2 billion dollars. The other roughly 13 billion dollars are costs relating to upgrading the country’s infrastructure and health service – a World Cup will simply move these planned investments forward. Also included in the total costs are 3,2 billion dollars in hotel upgrades financed by the country’s booming tourist industry.

The 3,2 billion dollars in football expenses will generate, according to Elalamy, 1,1 billion in tax income. The net public spend on football facilities will be about two billion dollars, according to the bid chairman.

“93 per cent of the population is interested in football. 75 per cent of women support it. That’s something I like,” he said.

The journalists were allowed one question each.

“We have just arrived here from Marrakech. On the way we passed houses that could be described as huts. How do you justify spending billions on a World Cup when the country has challenges relating to poverty and basic needs like better housing?,” I asked.

“Regarding expenditure…I probably didn’t explain myself very well”, he said, and gave a short summary of his presentation. About 14 billion dollars will be spent anyway, this project gives the go-ahead for 21 new hospitals, he stressed.
“Mexico has bid for the World Cup before, no? Were there no shantytowns there?,” he asked rhetorically.

Sure there were. And he could’ve said Brazil, or South Africa. There were shantytowns in those countries when they bid to host the World Cup.
The shantytowns are still there.

“Unethical behaviour”
“Sometimes it’s easy if you sit in the UK or Scandinavia, in countries with better housing, better infrastructure, and look at a country who’s more in development and say ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, you shouldn’t be trying this’. Countries have a right to have aspirations about improving, about developing, about investment. A World Cup and other major events – Olympics, World Championships – if they’re used right, can be a very powerful catalyst. You don’t do this thing for just the month – you’re doing them, hopefully, with a national plan and vision that also is benefit to the country and its future. When the bid chairman talked about planned investment, he wasn’t saying it was investment for the World Cup, he’s saying it’s for improving the fabric of the country,” Mike Lee said as we walked around the Mohammed VI Football Academy in Rabat, the country’s only national football academy at this point, named after the present king of Morocco.

There will be more of its kind, is the vision – maybe also for girls, as this academy is boys-only. Places where young aspiring footballers can train, live and go to school – and some, hopefully, will be as good as Achraf Hakimi, the 19-year-old who the previous night had been the outstanding player when Morocco comfortably beat Uzbekistan 2-0 in a friendly with the Vero-invited international press present.

“I’ll give you a good example: PyeongChang. It had been talk in previous bids of a high speed rail link between Seoul and PyeongChang. Only winning the right to host games meant it finally happened.”

In Lee’s opinion, world sport has been good at ignoring Africa.
“We have to make sure these events go around the world. We call them global events. You can’t say that just because they’re on everyone’s TV. They are massive in turn of a country’s vision. If used correctly they can have a much wider legacy.”

One of the winning bids Vero was involved with was Qatar 2022. I asked if he reflects on the political situation in a country before getting involved in a bid; what was his thought process around migrant workers’ rights and the kafala system when he did the Qatar bid?
“First of all, many of the issues that have arisen since they won were not very well known about at the time. People forget that a lot of this was highlighted after the bid was won. It wasn’t a big part of the international awareness. Something else that was happening at the time was the Arab spring. You always have to see things in the context in which a bid is being developed. In the period of the Arab spring there was a sense that the Middle East was changing, the Middle East was moving, it was right to build a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of the world, particularly the west. It was in that context we began working with Qatar. As some of these issues arose, if you look at some of the programmes put in place, there was a big commitment coming from the highest levels of government to come up with reforms —in labour laws, in migrant workers’ rights and cultural life. And some of them have happened.”

But only some of them, I said.
“I can’t be responsible for the final impact, but what we can try and do is to try and help people win and this generates momentum, hopefully, for development and change.”

Lee believes that the 2026 bid will be decided by FIFA’s member association is a positive step.
“It’s a good reform by FIFA. Having just an Executive Committee deciding clearly led – all evidence is there – to some unethical behaviour.”

One of the bids where “unethical behaviour”, more like large-scale corruption, has been discovered is Qatar. Lee claims he didn’t know it took place.
“I was never involved, but I read what you read and see the trials that take place. But that’s not the kind of work we do, and if we would discover unethical behaviour, we’d walk away. Simple.”