Can Southeast Asia host a World Cup?

With the news that the United States, Canada and Mexico are going to bid for the 2026 World Cup, it reopens a debate as to whether something similar could happen in Southeast Asia.

There is good reason. One is that there has been talk at the highest levels in the region – fairly casual talk but talk nonetheless – about a joint bid sometime around 2034. The expansion of the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 from 2026 has given what was an idea thrown around lightly, a little more weight.

There is obviously going to be more joint bids in the future with 48 teams providing a major logistical challenge. There are not that many single hosts able to cope with it all and less that would be willing to do so.

In February, Myanmar Football Federation boss Zaw Zaw welcomed FIFA president Gianni Infantino to Yangon and told reporters, “Today, this morning, we had a council meeting (about when) we’re going to host the World Cup in ASEAN,” he said. “We were discussing 2034.”

Infantino, possibly following in the footsteps of predecessor Sepp Blatter who had a habit of telling people everywhere he went what they wanted to hear, sounded positive.

“I support co-hosting, which opens of course the doors to many associations, and ASEAN is a region which is passionate about football,” he said.”For a country alone in the ASEAN region it’s difficult to host the World Cup, but for several countries why not?”

The man from FIFA. He say “yes”!

The ASEAN region has certain advantages. The sheer size of the market makes it attractive, one that over 600 million people call home. It is young and vibrant and growing in all kinds of ways, not least economically. Football is hugely popular.

There is no region on the world’s biggest continent that has the same passion for the game and it is virgin World Cup territory. There hasn’t been a World Cup game played within 3,000 kilometres of Bangkok.

The numbers and the love for the game help and there is a case to be made that the tournament could help football development in an underperforming part of the world.

Only Indonesia, under the guise of Dutch East Indies in 1938, has appeared on the world stage. In the eight decades since, there has been little hint of a return.

A World Cup in the region, harnessed in the correct way, has the potential to serve as a major boost to development of the game. There is no doubt that FIFA would be interested and Southeast Asia excited.

There are issues however.

The first is that attractive though the region may be, there are others. China is one and it is no secret that the worlds most populous country is on FIFA’s shortlist. The Middle Kingdom is becoming increasingly central to football.

If China wants the World Cup in the near future, it is likely to get it. India could be next, a country where FIFA has been active in recent years. If ASEAN is third in line for an Asian World Cup then it will be a long wait, perhaps closer to 2054 than 2034.

The elephant in the room.

And there is some history. The 2007 Asian Cup was shared between Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. On and off the pitch it did not quite work and it felt like four separate tournaments. There was little atmosphere around the region.

Things would change over the next two or three decades however. The region is becoming increasingly integrated. Residents may have become tired of reading about high-speed trains to link Hanoi in the very north and Singapore far to the south but this is going to happen. By the time the World Cup returns to Asia after China and possibly India, there will be no reason to stop ASEAN physically hosting the tournament.

While off the pitch challenges would be surmountable, in football terms there are bigger issues. While the relative weakness of the region offers opportunity and potential to kick-start growth, it also poses a major problem when it comes to joint bids.

Namely, the hosts have to be given an automatic place in the tournament. That is the whole point. These days, not that many cities want to stage an Olympic games but doing so without any home athletes is not going to happen. Same with the World Cup.

That is going to be a problem. With no Southeast team having qualified in almost living memory, the rest of Asia is unlikely to allow half of the future proposed allocation of eight going to four teams that would not be expected to make it off their own backs.

In 2002, Japan and South Korea co-hosted but that was not a major issue as these were the best two teams in Asia that would have likely qualified anyway. Four Southeast Asian teams is a different issue.

The longer that ASEAN fails to send teams to the World Cup, the harder it is going to be to convince others to support a four-nation bid.

It sounds exciting and tempting off the pitch but Southeast Asian teams needs to start qualifying for a World Cup or two to make a quadruple bid come close to reality.