The World Cup and international relations

Who gets to host future editions of the men's soccer World Cup is not just big business, but also a bargaining chip in international relations.

Street football in Conakry, Guinea. Image: Kris Fricke.

Now that the 2018 World Cup fever has passed and France has stopped arguing about the role and place of Africa in its championship team, it is time to focus on the future. Clearly, FIFA’s next World Cup in 2022 in Qatar has come with its fair share of controversies, including allegations of corruptionhomophobia and slavery. So has the vote for the 2026 World Cup—the three-country bid led by the USA, Mexico and Canada known as United 2026 won out in the end over Morocco. And FIFA’s African members—one of the largest voting blocs at 54 members, one smaller than UEFA and eight more than the Asian Football Confederation.

The choice of one country—Guinea in West Africa—deserves closer scrutiny. It is also a case study in how world football works. The announcement of the results of FIFA 68th Congress vote on the 2026 World Cup, held the day before kick-off on June 13th in Moscow, left many Guineans scratching their heads. Who did Guinea vote for? No matter how many times they rubbed their eyes or refreshed their browsers, the official tally was clear: Guinea’s vote went to United 2026.

Feguifoot, the Guinean soccer federation, was immediately summoned for an explanation: Who did Guinea vote for? Wasn’t Guinea officially supporting fellow African nation and long-term partner Morocco’s bid? Feguifoot’s president and Guinea’s representative with FIFA, Mamadou Antonio Souaré’s initial response only caused further confusion. As he explained a few minutes after the publication of the results: “Guinea didn’t vote for the US-led bid. It’s not possible. There is a total confusion here with the electronic vote. A lot of complaints. Our conscience is clear.” The point was further reiterated in an official press release from Feguifoot confirming Guinea’s support for the losing bid Morocco 2026.

Yet, in Guinea, the notion that FIFA’s electronic voting system is to blame failed to convince. In fact, FIFA promptly issued an official response ruling out any potential problem with the system, which it described as “flawless.” What is more, although Lebanon found itself in the exact same situation than Guinea, with officials from the Lebanese football federation also blaming electronic voting for their equally unexpected last minute ditch of the Moroccan bid, the Lebanese federation lodged an official complaint with FIFA. That Guinea did not attempt to officially contest the result, despite publicly denouncing it, further raised suspicion as to what the real motives behind this last minute backflip on the sacrosanct principle of pan-African solidarity. This turncoat move was particularly shocking coming from the country currently heading the African Union—whose official position is to support voting for African candidates par principe—and from a country who has in recent years developed increasingly close ties with Morocco. As a Guinean official recently noted: “During the Ebola crisis, Morocco was one of the few countries to support us. Even our soccer games were played in Morocco [during that crisis].”

So, if FIFA ruled out an electronic malfunction and Guinea hasn’t officially tried to set the record straight, what happened? Although speculations offered widely varied with regards to where the blame might lie within the Guinean political landscape, most if not all, appear to arch back to a single tweet: Donald Trump’s April 26 threat to those considering not backing United 2026:

The U.S. 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)?

Whether this single tweet is to blame for Guinea’s flip-flop is impossible to say. However, one thing is clear: Despite claims that FIFA only represents the will of national soccer federations, and is “not the United Nations,” the US under Trump is more than willing to tie the two—FIFA and the UN—in an effort to bully his country’s way to winning a bid. For a small country like Guinea, whose standing vis-a-vis the US significantly fell after it supported the resolution to allow the Palestinian flag to fly at the UN and whose citizens are currently not being issued any type of US visas—with the exception of close family members—any threat to its already strained relationship with the US is to be taken seriously.

As the fake twitter account of the Guinean president noted in response to the scandal: “Faced with the man who twisted Little Rocket Man’s arm, what can you do?” This recent episode in Guinea is a stark reminder that in an era when diplomatic relations are increasingly characterized by impulses, personal favors and plain-old bullying, staying close to the principle of pan-African solidarity may be a good place to start.

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