SINGAPORE: Back in 2009, there was widespread incredulity when Qatar announced its bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Ten years on, eyebrows were raised again when Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said earlier this week that all 10 ASEAN nations should make a joint bid to host the 2034 tournament.
While the initial cynical reaction to the two bids is similar, both are starting from different points.
A decade ago, Qatar, a tiny desert country with a population of little more than a million, was almost unknown to the outside world and had aimed to change that.
In contrast, Southeast Asia is a huge and diverse region, home to close to 700 million people and famous to even more around the world thanks to its food, beaches, cities, wildlife and culture.
With that in mind, if Qatar can persuade FIFA why can’t ASEAN? There is a long way - seven or eight years - to go before the decision is even made. A lot can happen in the meantime.
10 IS TOO MANY
But a lot has to be done too if ASEAN leaders are going to be celebrating in 2027 or so when the lucky country or countries are named.
The support of political leaders is a prerequisite to success in this game - there were many issues with Indonesia’s short-lived attempt to bid for 2022 but a major one was that Jakarta was never really onboard.
Still, much more is needed.
The first is organisational. FIFA expanding the tournament from 32 teams to 48 from 2026 onwards means that a single-country host after is going to be incredibly challenging and therefore unlikely. The United States, Mexico and Canada will stage the 2026 edition and there is not much of a leap from those three to having four, five or even six nations working together to host one World Cup.
Yet, 10 sounds unwieldy and unworkable and even if such obstacles can be overcome, just persuading others that they can will not be easy. Getting past the initial and instinctive scepticism that has already made itself known could be the biggest challenge facing ASEAN’s bid.
FIFA may refuse to even contemplate having 10 separate organising committees. The Asian Football Confederation struggled with the 2007 Asian Cup co-hosted by Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and that was, to be honest, a fairly low-key affair.
In organising and coordinating this global sporting affair, having to deal with all the different laws, languages, financial systems, taxes, currencies and plenty more may be all too much. Don’t be too surprised if FIFA next comes up with a maximum number of co-hosts.
MAJOR INVESTMENTS NEEDED
For the 2026 World Cup, it is expected that the hosts will submit a shortlist of 20-25 venues for FIFA to select at least 12. All must have a minimum seating capacity of 40,000 with 60,000 required for the semi-finals and 80,000 for the opening game and final.
Most ASEAN stadiums of such size in the region are in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam though all would need considerable upgrading. Some smaller stadiums can be supplemented with more stands, as the Russian city of Ekaterinburg did in 2018, or new arenas can be built.
There will still need to be major investments to meet FIFA’s requirements – seeing that 48 teams will need accommodation, access to top-class training facilities, transport and plenty more. It’s no wonder that FIFA demands full support from the governments of bidding nations.
There are stumbling blocks, not least that Malaysia does not currently allow entry to visitors from Israel. This policy resulted in FIFA moving its 2017 Congress away from Kuala Lumpur and if Malaysia wants part of any future World Cup, there may have to be changes.
And then there is the opposition. China especially may be a great wall lying between Southeast Asia and the competition. The world’s most populous country has identified hosting the world’s most popular sporting event as part of its developmental plans to become a major football power.
FIFA, and lots of sponsors, see expanding this football market as extremely lucrative. Not many countries can handle a 48-team World Cup but China is one that can and can do so almost immediately.
There is also a chance that India, a market that FIFA is more heavily invested in and even more keen to grow the game, could throw its hat in the ring but it could well be that 2034 will come around a little too soon for the South Asian giant.
India has started by hosting the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and is expected to bid for the 2027 Asian Cup before it turns thoughts to the biggest sporting event of all.
What Southeast Asia has going for it, apart from 10 guaranteed votes when the decision is made by the entire FIFA Congress of over 200 nations, is that it is seen as a highly desirable destination by fans at least with millions of tourists from all over the world visit the region every year.
The World Cup is not just about watching football, it is about the experience.
For FIFA, the region sits in the middle of a continent of 4 billion people and meets the organisation’s aim of taking the tournament outside the traditional strongholds of South America and Europe.
FIFA repeatedly stresses the need for the tournament to leave a legacy (though whether it happened in the past is debatable) but the world’s biggest event coming to Southeast Asia would not only give the region a top-class football infrastructure but could also inspire a new generation of players.
A Southeast Asian World Cup is not out of the question. Stranger things have happened as Qatar demonstrated. It is still a long shot however.
Still, just working together and moving forward with a coherent vision for ASEAN football would be a success in itself. Greater cooperation inside the region and greater engagement with countries outside can only be a good thing regardless of whether the World Cup actually arrives or not.
That golden trophy is not the only prize on offer.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene for The Guardian, New York Times, BBC, ESPN, Associated Press and others. He is the author of 3 books including ‘Lions & Tigers - the History of football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).