By Robson Sharuko
Harare - The United States of America is yet to repeal the crippling sanctions it imposed on Zimbabwe, but that has not stopped it from sending a high-powered delegation to plead with the Southern African country to back their joint bid with Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Statements by United States Senator, Chris Coons, who told CGTN Africa – the African Bureau of China Global Television Network – that President Mnangagwa’s administration had not taken concrete steps to ensure credible elections in this country invited a sharp response from the government.
Zinmbabwe’s Secretary for information, Media and Broadcasting Services, George Charamba, said in sharp contrast to Coon’s concerns, democracy was unfolding in Zimbabwe with the government guaranteeing a peaceful poll next month and inviting a host of international observers to bear witness to the elections.
While the political drama continues to unfold, the United States – which is the dominant partner in the joint bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup – this week sent a powerful delegation to Harare to plead with Zimbabwe to sing in their corner when the vote to choose the 2026 World Cup host is held in Russia next Wednesday.
The race to try and win the hearts and minds of those who will cast their votes in Moscow, on the eve of the start of the FIFA World Cup finals, has entered the home stretch and the United States and its allies, Canada and Mexico, are hoping to fend off the challenge of Morocco.
The Moroccans have been gaining ground of late, according to some analysts, in their bid to become only the second African country to get the rights to host the World Cup, which first came to these shores in South Africa, 2010.
This is the first battle for the right to host the World Cup, where all of FIFA’s 208 members will cast a vote.
Before the 24 members of the FIFA executive committee, was responsible for choosing the hosting country, or countries. That process was fraught with controversy amid allegations of bribery and vote rigging.
Former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, announced the changes to the voting system in June 2011 and, four years later, the organisation was rocked by the pre-dawn arrest of some of its most powerful figures in Zurich on corruption charges. This was after American investigators uncovered the flow of millions in illicit funds to finance corruption in the game.
This included money used to lure executive members to vote in a certain way, in the battle for the rights to host the World Cup. Blatter himself was soon forced to step down in disgrace after it emerged that he made questionable payment to former UEFA boss Michel Platini.
The battle for the rights to host the 2026 World Cup is the first major decision FIFA will take in the aftermath of the scandal that shook the game and tainted its image. The world football governing body also knows that the world will be keenly observing events in Moscow.
CAF president Ahmad Ahmad has thrown the continent’s support behind Morocco, which unsuccessfully bid for the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Ahmad, however, knows that Africa is fragile and often polarised when it comes to voting and never votes as a bloc.
Football and politics, though, are never far apart and some observers believe that America’s divisive politics could come back to haunt the country’s bid, which unlike the one being hosted by Russia this month, will feature 48 countries.
The president of the Liberian Football Association Musa Bility, who is also a powerful figure in CAF, has already announced that his country will back the North American bid.
Bility said he had consulted the country’s President George Weah and they agreed to vote for the United States, Canada and Mexico because of historically strong bonds that exist between the West African nation and the Americans.
Weah’s son represents America in international football.
“Bility said the long-running traditional relationship between Liberia and the United States, the many Liberians living in the US and the impact the World Cup will have on them were key in its endorsement decision,” the statement said.
The Liberians also said there was more commercial value in having the 2026 World Cup held in the United States, Canada and Mexico than in Morocco.
FIFA stands to earn more than £8bn profit if the World Cup is held in the three countries. Unconfirmed reports also state that the game’s leaders have been secretly asking members to consider the profits when voting. The move could mean more money to be shared amongst FIFA’s members.
Football and politics are like Siamese twins and United States President Donald Trump plunged into the battle for the right to host the World Cup when he tweeted that, “it would be a shame if countries we always support were to lobby against the US bid.
“Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations).”
FIFA was forced to caution Trump for his remarks which some viewed as threatening countries from exercising their rights and bullying them into casting their vote in favour of the joint bid by the North Americans.
“As a general rule, we cannot comment on specific statements in connection with the bidding process,” FIFA said in a statement.
“We can only refer to the FIFA Regulations for the selection of the venue for the final competition of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and in particular to the Bid Rules of Conduct incorporated therein.
Improper activities “may adversely affect the integrity of the Bidding Process and create an undue influence on the Bidding Process.”
The North and Central American bid representatives have been going on their final offensive and rolled into southern Africa, this week, where they addressed the South African football leadership and some COSAFA bosses on Sunday before flying into Harare the following day.
“US Bid Committee comprising Mexico & Canada FA Presidents and bid Director Jim Brown are making a presentation to SAFA & COSAFA members today,” SAFA tweeted on their official Twitter account.
It’s the second time the North and Central American bid leaders have visited this part of the world to try and woo the COSAFA leaders into their corner.
They also seem to be aware of the influence the regional leaders now wield, on the continent, after COSAFA plotted the downfall of long-serving CAF president Issa Hayatou.
Four officials, led by Canada FA president Steven Reed, Mexico FA president Decio de Maria, Jim Brown, who is the managing director of the united bid and communications expert Max Gleischman, were in Harare on Monday and Tuesday.
They were set to meet ZIFA president Philip Chiyangwa and other senior Government officials who also include Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Sibusiso Moyo.