Football: Many challenges but Asean World Cup bid for 2034 will boost region on many fronts

The national football teams of Singapore (in red) and Thailand in action during the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2018.
The national football teams of Singapore (in red) and Thailand in action during the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

US$20b cost projected, logistics issues abound with transport improvements needed

SINGAPORE - An Asean World Cup would be a boost to the region on numerous fronts, but a number of issues need to be addressed before a realistic proposal can be put forward.

Social media has been abuzz with frenzied discussions on the feasibility of the idea, after Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on Sunday (June 23) that South-east Asian countries will jointly bid to host the World Cup in 2034. He made the declaration after meetings between leaders at the Asean Summit in Bangkok.

Asean Football Federation (AFF) president Khiev Sameth welcomed the announcement, and on Monday (June 24) talked up the region's ability to host the tournament.

"It has always been our stand that Asean, which is collectively the third-largest economy in Asia and the seventh-largest in the world, has the potential to host a successful Fifa World Cup," he said.

"The AFF will engage our stakeholders and look into the possibility of making a bid... while taking into account the key factors including minimum requirements for hosting the competition, timelines and other considerations."

The idea for a joint Asean World Cup bid dates as far back as 1996, when it was raised by then Minister for Community Development Abdullah Tarmugi, and was positively received by the AFF. The idea was revived in 2011 and again in 2017. Both times, the excitement eventually fizzled out.

James Walton, head of Deloitte South-east Asia's sports business group, noted that with more teams in the World Cup from 2026 onwards - from 32 to 48 - it would be difficult for one nation to host.

While this appears to work in favour of an Asean bid, the reported 10-nation proposal throws up major logistical issues, he added.

For example, the transport infrastructure in several countries would need to be overhauled to serve almost one million World Cup visitors, significantly increasing the cost of staging the tournament.

Brazil spent about US$15 billion (S$20.32 billion) to host the 2014 World Cup, while Russia spent some US$14 billion to host last year's edition.

The estimated bill for 2022 hosts Qatar, meanwhile, are astronomically higher - around US$200 billion - primarily because of the need to build roads, airports and a metro that did not exist prior, said Walton.

He reckons the 2034 edition will cost at least US$20 billion to stage.

Also, Asean may face stiff competition from potentially more attractive, proposals from across Asia.

Earlier this month, Fifa president Gianni Infantino said he would welcome a bid from China, which has expressed an interest in hosting either the 2030 or 2034 tournament.

Australia, an Asian Football Confederation member, could also be an enticing option if it decides to launch another proposal, after a failed bid for the 2022 edition.

But a tournament in Asean has its allure, with tourism being one of them.

"In theory, over two and a half weeks, you could base yourself in Singapore, fly to Bangkok for a game, lie on the beach in Phuket... The tourism would be a boost to the economy," noted Walton.

Football in the region would also benefit. Walton pointed to the example of Qatar, which won hosting rights in 2010 and won the Asian Cup for the first time last year.

"When they won the bid, people were saying they could possibly go on to become the worst-performing team in the history of the World Cup," said Walton.

"But it gave them an impetus to focus and prioritise football in the country, and they've invested in training facilities, coaching... this is going to have a lasting effect."

Football Association of Singapore president Lim Kia Tong also believes a successful Asean bid will uplift football in the region.

He said: "A successful bid... would see the global football community focus their attention on the region. This is turn will galvanise the sport here and lift it to the next level. It would be most visible in the long term... especially with improved football infrastructure.

"It would also allow the Asean football fans to come together as one as they cooperate for the programming required to host a tournament of such a scale.

"We look forward to engaging with the regional member associations to explore the feasibility of such a joint bid."