Asean Football

The greatest show on earth?

Asean is planning a sensational bid to host the World Cup, but what are the realitiesof bringing this footballing fiesta to our backyard?

Written By:
May 13, 2014
The greatest show on earth?
Hey, big spender: Soccer City in Johannesburg. South Africa spent at least $1.3 billion on stadia for the 2010 World Cup. Photo: Getty Images/David Cannon

It all began four years ago on a chilly December evening in Zurich. When Fifa President Sepp Blatter announced that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, the footballing fraternity looked on, slack-jawed.

A desert nation with no footballing history and fewer inhabitants than Phnom Penh would be hosting the world’s largest footballing spectacle. The news prompted a Straits Times article, penned by Fuadi Pitsuwan, son of then Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, that intoned: “Asean should host the World Cup in 2030.”

The idea soon gained traction. At the 2011 Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Lombok, the ministers agreed in principle that Asean would bid to host the 2030 World Cup as a single entity. Asean leaders again endorsed the idea at summit level in May 2011.

Since then, there has been relatively little movement in public, although Zainudin Nordin, president of the Football Association of Singapore, confirmed the bloc’s “target and goal” of hosting the World Cup in a recent television interview, and there were discussions at the last Southeast Asian Sports Ministers Meeting in December.

“The fact that it has been endorsed at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting and again at the Asean Summit should speak volumes to how serious this consideration is,” said Fuadi Pitsuwan, also a research fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Centre, via email.

The possibility of an Asean bid looms large, although the Malaysians – appointed to take the lead on the bid – are agitating for a slight adjustment to the original plans.

“Consensus at the moment is for the bid to be made for 2034. With Qatar getting it in 2022, the Asean countries are of the opinion that 2030 might be a bit too soon for Fifa to award it to another Asian country,” said Dimishtra Sittampalam, a special officer at Malaysia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“Currently Fifa does not allow for a confederation [divided roughly into continents] to host a World Cup if it has hosted any of the previous two editions. With Qatar hosting in 2022, the earliest possible edition that Asean can bid for is 2034,” said Azzuddin Ahmad, the Malaysian secretary general of the Asean Football Federation.

This is incorrect. Article 80 of the Fifa statutes states that: “The right to host the event shall not be awarded to members of the same confederation for two consecutive editions of the Fifa World Cup,” meaning that Asean could bid for 2030 if it wished.

Whatever the reason, shifting to 2034 may be a smart move. The 2030 World Cup will mark the tournament’s centenary. The first edition was held in, and won by, Uruguay in 1930, and a joint bid for 2030 by Uruguay-Argentina is already underway. Given the romanticism, the bid is widely considered a shoo-in.

Although Fifa told Southeast Asia Globe that it does not have “a specific deadline” for the bidding process, time is of the essence for Asean, particularly given the governing body’s stated goal of bringing the tournament to territories outside of its traditional European-Latin American power base. Indeed, between 2002 and 2022, the World Cup will have been held in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East for the first times.

“If they are prepared and they are ready, I think it would be a great thing for Asean, but it’s up to them to decide how they want to do it, and it really comes down to the bid,” said Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, Fifa vice-president for Asia. “I think it would be great for the region’s people and, if I’m still involved with Fifa at that time, I would be very supportive of such an idea.”

Despite having the clear backing of Fifa’s top man in Asia, an Asean bid would need to allay huge concerns, mostly logistical and many of them linked to the fact that a World Cup has never been co-hosted by more than two nations.

Zut alors! Zinedine Zidane (centre) received an estimated $3.2m for his role as a World Cup ambassador for Qatar.
Photo: AFP Photo/Karim Jaafar

“Organising a World Cup in ten countries is very ambitious. Fifa may refuse to consider this. But maybe it is a chance, too, as Fifa has started to discuss how to decrease the expenses for its events. It makes sense to have ten stadia built in ten countries,” said Sylvia Schenk, Transparency International’s senior advisor for sport.

That nations such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar could have once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to host World Cup matches also fits neatly into Fifa’s remit of bringing the tournament to exciting new places.

But what of the fans? Another stumbling block is the vast distances over land and sea that supporters might face as they follow their teams around the region. Yet this also has a precedent. In next month’s World Cup in Brazil, the furthest that fans and players might have to travel between host cities is 3,100 kilometres from Manaus to Porto Alegre. The greatest distance between two Asean capitals is 2,700 kilometres, from Jakarta to Manila.

While Qatar’s successful bid paved the way for ‘non-traditional’ footballing nations to host the World Cup, the fact that none of Asean’s member states even come close to the top 100 in Fifa’s current world rankings cannot bode well. Vietnam, currently the highest ranked at 125th, sits behind Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Tajikistan – a brutal reminder of the standard of football currently played in this part of the world.

Other problems, such as the dire state of league football in Southeast Asia, and the region’s huge infrastructure needs, have time to be addressed, according to Prince Al-Hussein.

As well as sporting considerations, World Cup bids are steeped in politics, with financial support for infrastructure and new stadiums usually provided from public funds. A storm of teargas and rubber bullets was unleashed by police during numerous World Cup-related riots in Brazil in the lead-up to next month’s event, while an attack on the president’s office was also repelled – all this and more in a single, unified nation.

“Political differences are going to be the most difficult to overcome. There are also huge practical challenges involved, including currency issues and logistics. Getting the bid to work will also bring out the conflict within Asean, particularly political differences when… issues such as Asean leadership, state sovereignty and historical baggage continue to evoke tensions,” said Benjamin Ho, an associate research fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

But the political squabbles, the huge infrastructure investment and the logistical nightmare will all be worth it when those sweet World Cup dollars come rolling in, right? Wrong.

“There is little or no financial impact,” said Stefan Szymanski, the economist co-author of renowned football book Soccernomics.

Unless the Asean leagues grow rapidly, World Cup stadiums would have limited use, and tourism benefits are small. There really are no substantial financial pros.

Stefan Szymanski

Academic economists have, almost without exception, found little correlation between the hugely positive effects predicted ahead of World Cups and the financial reality once the final vuvuzela has been honked. The consulting firm Grant Thornton South Africa, for example, predicted that about half a million international tourists would arrive for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

However, the 2011 academic paper The 2010 World Cup High-Frequency Data Economics by Wolfgang Maennig and Stan du Plessis put that figure as low as 90,000. A more optimistic figure of 220,000 extra arrivals was put forward in the paper Tourism and the 2010 World Cup: Lessons for Developing Countries by Thomas Peeters et al. However, the authors also found that, after taking into account the astronomical financial outlay by the host nation, South Africa forked out about $13,000 per extra visitor.

The big boss: Fifa President Sepp Blatter (crowd on the left, 4th right) at the 2010 World Cup. Fifa earned $3.4 billion in revenue from the tournament. Photo: Getty Images/Clive Mason

Even the service and hotel industries, which could be expected to be two of the main World Cup beneficiaries, have been shown to generate mixed results. A key factor is the ‘crowding out’ effect, where ‘regular’ tourists decide to steer clear of the World Cup host nation due to the expected noise, transport problems and copious daytime drinking.

In their 2007 paper World Cup 2010: South African Economic Perspectives and Policy Challenges Informed by the Experience of Germany 2006, Maennig and Du Plessis found that, during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, countrywide hotel occupancy rates actually decreased by 2.7% compared with June 2005. In Berlin and Munich – the cities with the largest number of matches – occupancy rates dropped by 11.1% and 14.3% respectively.

Adding insult to financial injury, it also seems that Fifa claims much of the World Cup bounty for itself.

“As a monopolist facing a competitive group of bidders, Fifa is able to extract much of the financial benefit of hosting the tournament from the bidding countries,” according to Maennig and Du Plessis.

They cite the example of advertising at the 2006 World Cup, which within a one-kilometre radius of the stadium and along all major access roads was restricted to Fifa-endorsed enterprises, with all profits channelled to Fifa. Football’s world governing body also lays claim to the tournament’s other key cash cows – television and marketing rights.

The South Africans didn’t fare any better in 2010. Given that Fifa requires hosts to have at least 12 modern stadiums with capacities of 40,000 or more, and to provide extreme security and never-ending hospitality, hosting the World Cup cost South Africa an estimated $3.9 billion. From the same tournament, Fifa earned $3.4 billion in total commercial revenues, according to Maennig and Du Plessis.

Whether Asean could deal with – or would want to deal with – such financial realities remains to be seen.

However, the main outlay comes only after the bid is won. If it were to be successful, Asean would first need to woo Fifa and its delegates. Schenk, who authored the report Safe Hands: Building Integrity and Transparency at Fifa, feels that Asean can learn from the Qatar bid.

“Qatar offered high-standard stadia, hotels and technical innovation that may help develop other countries,” she said. “A good, or even perfect, concept for infrastructure and organisation is needed, as well as a very strong story: What will be achieved by the World Cup? What will be the legacy with regard to sport and society?”

In addition – and an area where Asean would need improvement – it is vital that potential hosts offer Fifa and its partners a stable environment.

“There should be trust in the countries’ politics and trust in the rule of law being observed,” said Schenk. “The Fifa delegates must feel safe, [as should] the sponsors and TV stations that bring all the money. ‘Safe’ does not just refer to violence or terrorism, [it also means] trust that investments will be secure and that there is no damage to reputations by, for example, a corruption scandal or human rights abuses.”

However, perhaps Asean’s biggest lesson from Qatar is this: Be prepared to blow some serious cash. The Gulf state’s bid is said to have spent $45m solely on communications in 2010 alone. The bid also threw more than $7m at former footballing superstars to act as bid ambassadors – Zinedine Zidane received a reported $3.2m for his efforts, while Gabriel Batistuta pocketed a tidy $2.3m.

Crunch time: hosts South Africa drew 1-1 with Mexico in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup. Photo: Creative Commons/Magnus Manske

Documents have also been uncovered that outline Qatari proposals to build a football academy in Thailand – home to Worawi Makudi, a member of Fifa’s executive committee that voted on the host country.

Given the fallout from a series of corruption scandals, some of them linked to the 2022 bidding process, Fifa is reeling. Its workings have always been “opaque”, according to Schenk’s Safe Hands report, but now the general public is “demanding accountability from those in power”.

Andrew Jennings, author of Foul! The Secret World of Fifa: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals, has been investigating Fifa corruption for 14 years and is regarded as a world expert on the matter. He cites an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption at Fifa, over an alleged $2m payment to former vice-president Jack Warner, as the one that could finally shake up the governing body. And this causes difficulty when attempting to outline potential bidding tactics.

“Fifa is in flux… So what do you do if you’re from Southeast Asia, from Europe, from Transylvania, from wherever, and you want to host a World Cup? It’s a tricky one to deal with, and then of course you’ve got the massive corruption. It’s just not a normal time when one can make any assessment of the opportunities in the future,” said Jennings.

Much closer to home and the scent of corruption also lingers in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s criminal enterprises have spawned a region-wide match-fixing behemoth worth an estimated $90 billion a year, whose main players also operate out of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Declan Hill, an academic and author of The Fix: Soccer and Organised Crime, is adamant that holding a World Cup in Southeast Asia would increase the likelihood of match-fixing at the event.

“Of course it would. It’s the hub of fixing,” he said. “Almost every single league in the region has been corrupted. The Malaysians and Singaporeans should be threatened with expulsion from international football until they get their own leagues in order.”

While Schenk feels that the region’s ties to match-fixing could be “a big obstacle for the bid” if nothing is done to combat it, Hill claimed that it would not prove a major stumbling block, as “Fifa does not care about such things”.

When asked whether match-fixing would affect a potential Asean bid, Fifa’s Prince Hussein was keen to impress that he feels it is “a global issue that needs to be tackled and I wouldn’t like to finger it at one place or the other”.

Of course, it could also be argued that hosting the World Cup would be the perfect opportunity for Asean to clean up its domestic leagues and make a concerted effort to tackle match-fixing. Such a cleanup operation would provide ample opportunity for political posturing – as mentioned earlier, hosting a World Cup is intrinsically linked with politics, and this is overtly the case with Asean’s potential bid.

Almost all of the existing comment on the matter includes phrases such as “catalysing efforts to further integrate Asean” and “solidifying a crucial second identity for all citizens of Asean – Aseanites”.

“A very strong story is needed: What will be the World Cup’s legacy for sport and society?”

Sylvia Schenk, Transparency International

Make no mistake: This is just as much a political venture as a sporting one.

“Modern economics recognises other [World Cup] effects as well, such as awareness and image effects. Our study indicated a rising awareness of South Africa… The country takes pride in having passed such an important test under the scrutiny of the world,” said Du Plessis and Maennig.

Such effects could not be better suited to Asean, a bloc that will be undergoing economic integration at the same time as the bidding process and will thus be looking to increase its standing on the world stage.

In addition, studies often neglect a further proven benefit of hosting the World Cup – a feel-good factor that is comparable to “an unexpected increase in income that takes someone from the bottom half of the income distribution to the middle of the top half”, according to Soccernomics. Multiply this across ten entire nations and you have one very happy political and economic bloc on your hands.

“Whether it is 2030 or 2034 is not important,” said George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister who strongly supported the World Cup push during his time in office. “What is important is the psychology of Asean as a region hosting the World Cup… We need to cultivate a greater sense of Asean citizenship among the people. Hosting the World Cup would do more to foster an Asean spirit than anything that we’ve done in the past.”

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