It has been a given that hosting a FIFA World Cup means an automatic qualification to the world’s biggest sporting event for the host nation. However, things aren’t going to be that straightforward in the future versions of the World Cup!
What with the United State (US), Canada and Mexico co-hosting the tournament in 2026 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — all 10 of them — weighing up a bid to host the World Cup in 2034!
Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam are the 10 countries which make up the ASEAN — a region well known for its passionate football fans who flock the stadiums in thousands for a game of football (Timor-Leste and Australia are also part of the ASEAN Football Federation, but they are not members of the intergovernmental organisation which has mooted the idea to bid).
But with Asia only having FOUR qualification slots (plus 0.5 via an inter-confederation play-off) until the 2022 World Cup and EIGHT starting 2026 World Cup when the tournament will be expanded to 48 teams, chances are unlikely that all 10 nations from ASEAN will qualify automatically if there is a successful bid.
As the 2002 World Cup was the first to be hosted by more than one nation (Japan and Korea Republic) and the 2026 edition is all set to become the first to have more than two hosts, it is safe to say we will be entering uncharted territories when it comes to the topic of automatic qualification spots.
But, even then, which of the 10 nations from Southeast Asia have realistic chances of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup in ASEAN and how can they do it? Let’s take a look!
Direct entry via World Cup Qualifiers
No ASEAN nation has qualified for the World Cup via qualifiers so far — the exception being Indonesia who before their independence (known as the Dutch East Indies) automatically qualified for the 1938 World Cup in France as the only team from Asia. But that is not to say we might not have ASEAN nations fighting the best of Asia for a spot in the World Cup in a decade’s time.
This is where the expanded 48-team World Cup could come in handy for ASEAN as Asia will now get eight qualification slots for the world championship (still only amounting to 17 per cent representation of the 46 member nations in the Asian Football Confederation) and there is no reason why one or even two ASEAN nations can sneak in via the qualifiers for 2034.
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Vietnam and Thailand seem to the be the contenders to do this with Vietnam currently among the Top 15 sides in Asia while Thailand are 20th in the continent in the latest FIFA World Rankings. Vietnam are the regional champions winning the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 and also reached the last-eight of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 proving their credentials to compete against the elites of Asian football.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s performances might have dipped in the recent times, but they are traditional powerhouses of the ASEAN and have the most competitive domestic league in the region. They also reached the Round of 16 of the Asian Cup earlier this year only to be knocked out by Asian giants China PR.
Automatic qualification as host nation(s)
It is still very early days when it comes to the bidding process for the 2034 World Cup and only a formal announcement from Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is what we have got so far.
But one thing that we know is Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Cambodia are the nations which currently have stadiums that can meet the FIFA requirements for hosting the World Cup while Myanmar’s Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon could also be included if it is renovated in time to meet the standards set by the world body.
That makes it seven ASEAN nations who are eligible to host the 2034 World Cup while Philippines, Laos and Brunei might have to settle for other roles like acting as training bases for the participating nations as their sporting infrastructure is lacking at the moment. But it seems extremely unrealistic of FIFA to allocate even seven spots in the World Cup for hosts.
US, Mexico and Canada are holding out for three spots as they co-host the 2026 World Cup (something yet to be resolved by FIFA) and it is likely that the ASEAN also gets three to four spots as hosts of the quadrennial showpiece which will ensure that there is at least three (or four) Southeast Asian nations at the World Cup and keep the local support at fever pitch.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam qualified as hosts when the four ASEAN nations co-hosted the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 and the pick could go to these four nations once again to automatically qualify as hosts at the 2034 World Cup. However, if one or two of these nations (Vietnam or Thailand most likely, as mentioned earlier) qualify by virtue of their performances in the World Cup Qualifiers, they could cede their automatic spot to one of their neighbours outside of the list.
Qualification via a play-off or 2033 AFF Cup
The 46 of the 48 slots at the 2026 World Cup will be divided among the six confederations — AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA. However, two remaining places is set to be decided by a six-team play-off tournament which is to take place in the World Cup host nation before the tournament proper.
This tournament is originally set to feature one team from the five confederations (UEFA excluded) and an additional team from the host confederation. However, ASEAN can negotiate with FIFA to allocate the two slots for the host nations or in the worst case scenario, include some of the ASEAN nations in the six-team play-off tournament to improve their chances of making it to the World Cup.
Another alternative could be to make the 2033 AFF Championship, the biennial tournament held among the Southeast Asian nations, a qualifying event for the World Cup itself with the two slots going to the teams making it to the final of the regional showpiece. The teams which have qualified via other means (as hosts or via qualifiers) could be excluded from the competition.
To summarise, with the methods mentioned above, ASEAN could optimistically have anywhere between three to five host nations playing at the World Cup in 2034. But to propound is one thing and to put things into action is something else. All these plans will require the agreement of several stakeholders of the world game and months and years on discussion tables to realise them.
But hey, we have a World Cup bid to win first!