LONDON — Fearful of a new round of misconduct, FIFA’s top administrator has warned the organization’s 211 member federations against accepting any inducements from World Cup bid committees ahead of the vote this summer to pick the site of the 2026 event.
FIFA delivered the warning in a letter sent Friday from its secretary general, Fatma Samoura. The six-page document, which was reviewed by The New York Times, appears to take aim at Morocco, which is challenging a joint North American bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico and has offered to cover significant costs usually borne by national soccer federations.
Ms. Samoura’s letter warns voters not to accept any technical or development support “which may unduly affect the integrity of the bidding procedure.”
FIFA did not respond to questions about the content of its letter beyond providing a link to bidding guidelines and another to an earlier letter sent to member federations regarding bidding rules.
This month, The Times reported that Moroccan officials had discussed formalizing a relationship between Morocco and the Confederation African Football in which national teams from across the continent would come to Morocco for training camps and other soccer development activities. Officials from the African confederation had not decided to accept the proposal, and it is not clear if Morocco plans to go ahead with the offer.
A spokesman for Morocco’s bid declined to comment.World Cup bidding competitions stretching back at least two decades have been mired in allegations of vote-buying, and a broad investigation led by the United States Department of Justice in recent years documented stories of improper payments that had been open secrets in the game for years.
Few technical details are known about Morocco’s offer to stage the 2026 tournament, the first edition of the expanded 48-team World Cup. Since 1998, the World Cup has included 32 teams. FIFA has reminded Morocco specifically about its bidding rules, according to a person with direct knowledge of those discussions.
At a meeting last week with journalists in London, officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico said they had no plans for new development programs ahead of the meeting on June 13 when FIFA’s member nations will vote on the location of the 2026 World Cup. “All three of us have done that in the past for years,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, referring to soccer development programs. “We are not starting any new ones between last year and now.”
The previous World Cup selection process, held in 2010, was so tarnished with allegations of vote-trading that FIFA was forced to change the procedure. For the first time, its entire membership will get to vote on the host; in the past, that choice had been reserved for its 24-member executive board. More than the half the members of that group in 2010 were later implicated in the wrongdoing during the process, which led to Russia’s hosting the 2018 tournament, and Qatar’s victory in the bidding for the 2022 event.
North American soccer leaders had hoped to avoid a bidding competition altogether by lobbying to expedite the selection process, but FIFA last year rejected a request to review the North American bid — widely seen as the heavy favorite to win — before opening up the competition. That opened a pathway for Morocco to enter the race for the fifth time. The North African country lost to a United States bid in 1994 and also failed to secure the event in 1998, 2006 and 2010. Details produced by American investigators in a 2015 corruption indictment revealed Morocco had tried to bribe voters in two of those races.
Several African soccer leaders, including the regional soccer president Ahmad Ahmad, have given their public backing to Morocco’s bid for 2026. The 54-member continental bloc is expected to vote next week on whether to endorse the bid. Such a move also could violate FIFA guidelines, according to Ms. Samoura’s letter.
“All members of the FIFA Council and delegates of the FIFA Congress should take their personal shortlisting or selection decision on the basis of their own assessment of the merits of the bids without being influenced by supportive or adverse comments of other officials,” she wrote. “Therefore, all officials are requested to refrain from expressing publicly their personal opinion about the merits of one or more bids during the bidding procedure.”
The choice of World Cup host is critical to FIFA’s finances. The organization has been bleeding cash as a result of the United States corruption inquiry and related legal matters. FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, is also trying to make good on a 2016 campaign pledge to quadruple development funding to soccer’s 211 member associations.
An expanded World Cup in North America would smash revenue and attendance records. The 1994 tournament sold more tickets than any other before or since, even though it involved only 24 teams, and thus had fewer matches.
“FIFA’s finances are heavily, heavily dependent on one event, the men’s World Cup,” said Mr. Gulati, the chairman of the North American bid. “So there’s a direct line between funding for programs around the world and what happens at the World Cup, and the revenue that’s generated.”
The North American bid has a built-in financial advantage because of a broadcast agreement signed in 2015 between FIFA and the U.S.-based broadcasters Fox and Telemundo, who are televising the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The deal, the result of a no-bid contract extension that angered the companies’ domestic rivals, included a $300 million escalator if the 2026 tournament is held in the United States. FIFA allowed those companies to extend their contracts to avoid litigation over its decision to move the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to December from its usual June-July calendar slot.
Morocco’s pitch is partly reliant on an argument that FIFA will be able to extract more revenue from European television companies because more games will be shown in prime time in some of soccer’s largest markets.
For the first time, FIFA will produce a score of the technical merits of each offer. The organization has urged voters to refrain from linking their final decision to factors beyond selecting the most appropriate tournament host.
By Tariq Panja-By Tariq Panja