Only one Southeast Asian nation has ever appeared at the Fifa World Cup finals and that was way back in 1938, when Indonesia – then known as Dutch East Indies – qualified for the round of 16, before being beaten 6-0 at by eventual finalists Hungary.
Leaders in the region are eager to ensure that this record does not reach a century and, as host nations automatically qualify for the finals, they are are seriously considering a bid to host the 2034 World Cup.
They believe that staging the biggest sports event in the world can take football in the region to the next level while Southeast Asian businesses see hosting the event as a platform to reach a global audience.
Bids for the 2030 tournament will likely be submitted around 2023 or 2024 meaning that concrete proposals for 2034 will need to be ready in the second half of the next decade. It is not close but it is not that far away either.
The starting gun
The ten-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) is key to the bid. In the press conference following the organisation’s June summit Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha announced that it was time for the region to start planning for the biggest sporting event on the planet.
“The leaders have the support of the region to host the Fifa World Cup in 2034, if possible,” Prayuth said. “I would like to invite the people of Asean to support the soccer associations in their countries in order to realise this dream.”
Somyot Poompanmoung, the president of the Football Association of Thailand, picked up the baton. “Commercial support from inside the region and outside is of course very important,” he tells SportsBusiness Asia. “First though is political support. The leaders have to start, not just talking but actually doing. I want to do this because if we want to be host, it will develop football a lot here, with better stadiums and facilities, more people interested and more money in the game.”
The Thai chief said that discussions are still ongoing as to how it will all work. Initial suggestions of all 10 member nations being involved were quickly watered down to four, though the likes of Laos and Myanmar could play some part in hosting a single game or serving as bases for teams. Somyot suggests that Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia should form the bid for pragmatic reasons. “We want that the co-hosts can have automatic places at the World Cup. Four could be too many, three would be OK.”
Those three countries could also work well together off the pitch according to Chih Yeong Voo, chief operating officer at RT Asean, and former executive at Turner Broadcasting Systems and Sony Pictures Television Networks Asia.
“The 10 Asean nations are so diverse and at the moment, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are the most aligned economically,” says Voo. “There is an Asean identity in business but it is not strong. A World Cup could help make that identity.”
While there are fears of recession in much of the world, Southeast Asia is outperforming most. “The economy is doing pretty well given the trade war between the US and China and what is happening in Europe with Brexit. Southeast Asia can benefit from the fallout. “The World Cup can take (business) to the next level as there would be substantial investment in infrastructure in all countries.”
Fifa currently requires at least 12 stadiums that meet its stringent requirements, including capacities of at least 40,000. Those hosting the quarter-finals must seat at least 60,000 while the stadium that hosts the final and opening game must have a capacity of 80,000 – an infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist in Southeast Asia. Additional investment in hotels, airports, transport and other areas could provide a boost to the economy and a lasting legacy for the region.
Thai FA boss Somyot believes that the combination of the World Cup and Southeast Asia will be a winning one. “This is a growing region of over 600 million people and the World Cup is the biggest event in the world and if you put those two together then businesses in Asean will want to be involved. Wehave already had positive reactions.”
Sasikumar is best remembered by Southeast Asian fans for scoring the goal that won Singapore the 1998 Tiger Cup and he crossed swords with Thailand many times on the pitch. The former international, now a successful entrepreneur, predicts that the business community in the region will work together to get behind the bid.
“Football is the number one sport and connects the region like nothing else. This is a region that people love to visit, and it will be cheap and exciting for fans. There is a major population base here and there are a lot of emerging companies who can be interested in a World Cup.”
“There are exciting companies whichcan use what the World Cup can offer and the opposite is true – the World Cup can benefit from these young brands. When you look at Singapore it is unique and technically advanced, but the region is becoming more connected. Indonesia is heading that way with e-commerce, internet-based business and growing internet penetration. Vietnam is even more interesting. Just look at their young people, producing the best coders and programmers and their own version of Silicon Valley in Ho Chi Minh City. Having the World Cup in the region to inspire can really give all this a boost.”
“When you look at the traditional Fifa brands you see Coca-Cola and adidas, global brands with a global footprint. We have seen Chinese companies getting involved as they want to create their own global footprint.”
Diking, a Chinese menswear company, did just that. After a $20m (€18m) sponsorship investment in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the brand, which hitherto had little international profile, saw sales increase 30-per-cent year-on-year.
Lv Qi, the chief executive of the Fujian-based company, explained the sponsorship was about more than just revenue, it was about following in the sporting sponsorship footsteps of brands like Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani.
He said that the benefits went beyond brand-buildibng through pitch-side advertising and extended into PR which resulted in new business opportunities.
“We sponsored the World Cup and our goal was very clear; to earn a position in the global market.”
What happened for Chinese brands in 2018 can happen for Asean companies in 2034. “It will be the same motivation for Southeast Asian brands,” Sasikumar said. “There are young and exciting brands that can become linked to the World Cup and go global. The World Cup provides the audience that they need.”
Fifa, US & China
Of course the entire discussion is moot if a majority of Fifa’s 200-plus member associations are not convinced when voting takes place in the second half of the next decade.
Not long ago, the idea of an Asean World Cup would have been dismissed but the situation has changed.
“There’s been a huge swing from within Fifa in favour of multi-country bids,” says James Corbett, correspondent of digital news service Off The Pitch. “The expansion of the World Cup [from 2026] to 48 countries rules out all but a handful of single nation hosts and the current Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, seems to see it as politically expedient to share around the spoils.”
Infantino said as much earlier this year. “I support co-hosting, which opens, of course the doors to many associations, and Asean is a region which is passionate about football,” he told reporters. “For a country alone in the Asean region, it’s difficult to host the World Cup, but for several countries as joint co-hosts, why not?”
Fifa’s new attitude will be tested in 2026. Then, the United States, Canada and Mexico will stage the competition. For Southeast Asia, much depends on this tournament. “Will this format last?” asks Corbett. “I think the experience of the 2026 ‘United’ World Cup will be telling. If it proves too much trouble or too costly, I don’t think it will last.”