With the revelation from Mr Joko Driyono, vice-president of Indonesia’s Football Association (PSSI), that countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) are considering a joint bid to host the 2034 Fifa World Cup, football fans across South-east Asia have begun to dream of having the world’s most prestigious sporting event on our doorsteps.
This is not the first time this has been proposed. In 2013, Mr Zainudin Nordin, who was then president of the Football Association of Singapore, talked about the possibility of an Asean World Cup bid in 2030.
Recently, the International Olympic Committee has been struggling to find candidates to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, as the required investment to host balloons in this age of austerity, and the long-term impact and sustainability for host cities are questioned.
However, the opportunity to host the World Cup continues to be in high demand, so Asean nations are not the only ones plotting to become hosts.
But how realistic and feasible is an Asean bid? And what might it look like?
The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 will mean an increase from the current 64 matches to 80, with the group stage seeing 16 groups of three teams instead of eight groups of four teams. After that, the knockout stage will begin with 32 teams, instead of the current 16.
This expanded format means that the infrastructure demands will increase significantly: More stadiums will be required to handle fans coming from 48 nations.
At the moment, Fifa regulations stipulate that host stadiums must be able to accommodate at least 30,000 spectators for the group stage matches and up to a minimum capacity of 60,000 for the final — with significant hospitality space in each venue.
Mr Driyono talked of only two or three nations being involved in the bid: If the bid were to use only two nations, the most realistic options would be Indonesia and Malaysia, which both offer a range of venue cities, multiple stadiums, and enough geographic spread to allow for segregating the various fans.
With its small size and lack of supply of (and demand for) high-capacity stadiums, from a pragmatic point of view, Singapore really enters the equation only when you add a third, or even fourth, country to the mix.
Let us assume that a consortium is formed with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia (along with perhaps Vietnam or the Philippines) can all offer a range of potential host cities, large domestic markets and tourism infrastructure while Singapore offers a “crown jewel” city for the bid for corporate sponsors.
If those capacity requirements remain, there are currently more than 30 stadiums across these four nations that could host group matches based on capacity alone, while four stadiums (two in Indonesia, two in Malaysia) could potentially host the final.
In fact, of the 32 stadiums in these four nations with capacities listed at over 30,000, 27 are in Indonesia and Malaysia.
However, capacity alone does not tell the whole tale, and the majority of those stadiums would need significant redevelopment.
For the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, a total of US$4.6 billion (S$6.36 billion) was spent on infrastructure investment — with much of that going into building or renovating 19 stadiums.
In fact, only one of the 20 stadiums used did not require any renovation — and this was in two major footballing nations with established leagues and professional clubs.
Beyond the stadiums, infrastructure investment would also be required for airports, railways, roads, hotels and more — all adding up to a significant spend for the host nations.
In this new format of 48 teams, the current proposal (for 2026 at least) is that Asia would have 8.5 places (the half-spot is decided by a play-off), an increase of four places from 2014.
Of course, in Fifa terms, Asia includes the Middle East states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, as well as “true” Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea.
Since 2006, the Asian designation has also applied to Australia after their move from the Oceania region in order to compete for one of the more plentiful Asian spots in the World Cup.
The number of places available to Asia is potentially a significant factor in Asean’s bid. If the bid involved a consortium of four nations, that would mean four Asean nations expecting automatic qualification places.
That would affect the distribution of places and, given that only one or two of the four would be potential qualification candidates at best, it would mean a handful of places going to lesser teams at the expense of stronger footballing nations.
This would be a key consideration for Fifa when considering the number of host nations — so the fewer countries involved, the more optimal it will be from a competition point of view: Which may be influencing the thinking behind Mr Driyono’s limitation of two to three nations.
Of course, the Asean bid would almost certainly not be the only candidate for the 2034 World Cup.
The venue for the 2026 World Cup is currently being decided (after Russia and Qatar host the 2018 and 2022 editions, respectively).
Under the current rules around continental rotation, an Asian host is not possible for 2026 (which is expected to see a North American host, probably a consortium); however, there could be an Asian host in either 2030 or 2034 (but not both).
Several competing bids
With the 2030 World Cup being the Centennial edition, it is expected that competition will be fierce, with bids from England, Germany and Uruguay, among others, being talked up.
However, even in 2034, there will be stiff competition.
China is at the forefront of Fifa’s thinking for hosting a World Cup soon, while South Korea recently proposed the possibility of a joint “Peace World Cup” to be hosted with North Korea — an idea that would surely appeal to Fifa’s sense of largesse.
It is possible that another bid could materialise from the Middle East or even from the former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) states in the Asian region by 2034; and Australia is still a very popular choice in some quarters of Fifa, although their bid by then (which has been talked about as a potential joint bid with New Zealand) may be considered to be an Oceania bid rather than an Asian bid.
Ultimately, Asean has many years to plan their move: Bids will probably be due in 2026 at the earliest — and by then, we will also know the 2030 venue. If China or another Asian host were to win the 2030 rights, then that would mean Asean would probably not be eligible to bid for 2034 and the bid may be pushed back further.
For now, football fans across the Asean region can dream for a few years at least — not only of seeing global superstars in their stadiums but of seeing their own nations competing in the World Cup for probably the first time.
About the author:
James Walton is Sports Business Group Leader at Deloitte Southeast Asia