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When Africa finally got to host the world

Soccer City Stadium in Soweto was the site of the first ever World Cup final played in Africa.
Soccer City Stadium in Soweto was the site of the first ever World Cup final played in Africa.

African footballers were gaining greater recognition on the playing field by the 1980s, which was also when their administrators decided to try their hand at being part of the global game. It took them 16 years to achieve their aim of Africa hosting a World Cup, after an initial attempt in 1988.

Morocco were the first representatives from the continent when it was guaranteed a place at the World Cup in 1970, and it seemed only fitting that they would also be the first to try and organise the tournament in their country. They launched a bid for the 1994 World Cup and were up against the United States, Mexico and Brazil after Chile withdrew.

According to, FIFA took Morocco's bid "seriously," but its infrastructure less so. With only one stadium that met FIFA standards, a source said Morocco were deemed to be "years away -- 2006 at the earliest -- before it receives the nod."

That did not deter the North Africans from trying again for the 1998 edition. By then, bidding countries had decided to enhance their chances by wooing the FIFA president. Switzerland nominated then-head Joao Havelange for the Nobel Peace Prize and Morocco responded by having their king, Hassan II, receive Havelange in Rabat. But France had the better of both. Havelange was inducted into the French Legion d'honneur at a ceremony at the presidential palace.

Africa stayed away from bids for the 2002 World Cup but re-entered the fray in the new millennium when countries were being considered for the 2006 World Cup. FIFA's new president, Sepp Blatter, had indicated an African country was likely to win the bid and both South Africa and Morocco both submitted proposals. Neither won.

It was third time unlucky for Morocco, who were out of contention after the first round, but it was expected South Africa would be first-time favourites. In a surprising twist, Germany were a vote ahead after New Zealand's Charlie Dempsey, who was representing the Oceania Football Confederation, abstained despite being instructed to vote for South Africa. In a more detailed explanation, the BBC mentioned factors such as stadium readiness, crime and location as drawbacks for South Africa, even though the country had previously hosted both the rugby and cricket World Cups.

The cloud of controversy that saw Germany host the 2006 World Cup left Blatter in a difficult position. When he campaigned for re-election two years after Germany were awarded the rights, he promised a rotation system that would see each continent host the World Cup and that Africa would be the first to benefit from the new system.

True to his word, in 2004 only African countries were allowed to submit proposals and Morocco were first in the queue. They decided to bid for a fourth time; South Africa chose to try a second time; Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were maiden entrants. It was expected to be a two-horse race between the pair who had been there before and it proved exactly that.

South Africa's bid was headlined by a trio of Noble Prize winners -- the country's former presidents, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Mandela even made a presentation to FIFA officials detailing how football had been colour-blind even through the horrors of apartheid -- it was the only sport where there were multiracial leagues since 1978 -- and how sport provided him with some pleasure during his 27-year imprisonment. As one member of South Africa's organising committee recalled years later, it was going to be difficult for anyone to say no to Mandela.

And they did not. South Africa secured 14 votes, Morocco 10. Celebrations on the southern tip of the continent were in full swing. Mandela led them, saying he felt "like a young man of 50."

As for Morocco, they accepted defeat with dignity but disappointment. Their bid leader, Saad Kettani, was gracious in the immediate aftermath. "What is important is not to know where we fell down but it is important to know that there has been a competition and that Morocco went into it in a spirit of fair play, that we maintained our dignity to the end and that we respected the decision of the executive committee," he said. "We wish to send to all our brothers in South Africa our best wishes for a very happy and very good World Cup in 2010."

Former French footballer Just Fontaine, who was born in Morocco, laid bare why he thought Morocco had not succeeded. "We had goal scorers, sportsmen and footballers, but they had three Nobel Prize winners. So that is what happened. We'll have to try again. But next time, in 24 years, I will not be here."

Morocco have since become the first African country to host the Club World Cup, which was played there last year. It is believed they will bid for the 2026 World Cup, when it will be Africa's turn again. Fifth-time lucky? Maybe.