With football's world governing body Fifa willing to take its flagship competition into new territories, the race is on to become the next Asian country to play host to the most prestigious tournament in the sport - and hopefully give the chosen venue an economic a boost.
Earlier this year Chinese president Xi Jinping met the Fifa boss Gianni Infantino and afterwards an official statement was released declaring that: “The Chinese president expressed his hope, and the dream of many Chinese people, that the country would have the opportunity to host a Fifa Men’s World Cup at some stage in the future.”
A more improbable sounding destination for the 2034 World Cup is being offered by two separate South East Asian states. The Asean Football Federation recently declared its support for a joint bid from Thailand and Indonesia, two countries that the average football fan might not be familiar with.
Jason Withe has served as the assistant manager of the national teams of both Indonesia and Thailand and says he was impressed by the fervour of the supporters there.
"I remember when I was working with the Indonesia national team we played a home game in Jakarta, three hours before kick off the stadium was almost full with around 70,000 fans inside," he tells The National. "For the World Cup they would have no problems filling the stadiums up with just local supporters."
Attendances might not be a problem but could Indonesia and Thailand really bear the financial burden? It reportedly cost South Africa US$3.9 billion to host the 2010 World Cup. That figure is dwarfed by the $14bn which Brazil invested in a 2014 tournament marred by street protests and serious unrest, with doubts still lingering over the event’s long-term legacy.
Much of this money would have been spent on stadiums but hosting a World Cup can bring lasting benefits that go well beyond the sporting realm. Johan Fourie is an economics professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He said the 2010 edition of the tournament brought more to his country than mere pride or prestige, according to CNN.
“The World Cup is very good at creating a deadline for infrastructure spending that might have occurred but only in the medium to long term,” he said.
Professor Philippe Bovy is an expert in event logistics with a particular focus on transport. He has worked with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the European football governing body Uefa on major tournaments such as the Olympic Games and European Championships and recently hosted a seminar on the transport planning challenges and strategy ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Nearly 2,500km separates Bangkok and Jakarta but Prog Bovy does not see this as an insurmountable obstacle towards a successful joint World Cup bid.
"A World Cup in two countries is OK as long as the political relationships between the two countries and the two national football federations is good. Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 World Cup, it worked," he tells The National.
Indeed, the distance between Sochi and Nizhny Novgorod is 2,900km yet both Russian cities will play host to matches at the 2018 edition of the tournament. While Prof Bovy does not see the distance as being a major issue for a joint Thailand and Indonesia bid, has concerns about how the existing public transport infrastructure in Jakarta would cope,
“The Gelora Bung Karno Stadium is such a big stadium, the same capacity as the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro [78,800]. For such a big stadium a very high performance public transport system is absolutely needed - a temporary Bus Rapid Transit system could be a solution.”
Hosting the tournament could potentially be the catalyst for Jakarta to invest in public transport infrastructure - something that in 2010 the then South African minister of transport, Sibusiso Ndebele was well aware of.,
"We have constantly emphasised that the Fifa World Cup is not only about sport, it's also about transport," he said at the time.
The Indonesian and Thai national teams have never qualified for a World Cup but Mr Withe feels it is important for a host national to put out a competitive team.
“This for me is where the problem lies, they are two national teams that haven’t really come close to qualifying for a World Cup and it will be interesting how Qatar do in 2022 [when the country hosts the World Cup]. Usually the host nation does reasonably well ... when Korea and Japan hosted they both did well. If Indonesia and Thailand were to [bid successfully] both nations would have to put a lot of resources into youth development strategies.”
Even some of Thailand’s legislators seem to feel that the country should focus on the evolution of its national team before bidding to host a major tournament. Recently, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, the nation's minister of tourism and sports, commented: “Improvement of Thai football is more important than hosting the event. We should, rather, think how we can help to drive the Thai team to the top.”
Qatar’s suitability as a World Cup destination has been questioned in several quarters, and the 2022 tournament will be played in the middle of the European winter for the first time in its 92-year history due to intense heat during the competition's traditional summer months. The country lacks in terms of sporting pedigree and the recently imposed sanctions put on it by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others over alleged support for terrorism will further stretch the finances of a Doha already reeling under intense fiscal pressure.
Qatar, reportedly spending $500 million a week on infrastructure ahead of the 2022 tournament, has a GDP based on purchasing power parity (PPP) of $127.523. If it is feeling the financial squeeze, regardless of the sanctions, then Thailand and Indonesia will surely be even more under the cosh should they win the bid; Thailand sits 74th on the list of richest countries with a GDP of $16,888 PPP while Indonesia is 97th with a GDP of $11,720 PPP.
Bidding for the World Cup is a highly competitive process. Prof Bovy was a member of the evaluation commission that assessed applicant and candidate cities for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympic and the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics. He is pessimistic about the chances of a joint Indonesia and Thailand bid being successful,
“Very often a first bid does not make it. If the two countries want it they should invest in a common study but the chances seem remote.”
Most hopefuls focus their attention on putting together a successful World Cup bid before investing in the infrastructure. But China is already two years into a 10-year plan to increase the size of the sporting economy to £600bn (Dh2.92 trillion) through investment in football from both the state and the private sector.
China is also expected to bid for the 2038 World Cup and with preparations already underway it would be a surprise if the country was not successful. Meanwhile, India is currently hosting the Under 17 World Cup and is forecast to become the fastest-growing major economy in the world next year.
There is no question that people in Indonesia and Thailand are passionate about football but economically neither country looks ready to mount a successful World Cup bid.
With China embracing the sport and India emerging as another potential destination, it could be a long time before a major international football tournament takes place in South East Asia.