South-East Asia's 20-year plan
Fans in South-East Asia are regarded as the most passionate on the whole continent but at the moment they must be feeling a little confused. For years, the common complaint has been a lack of vision and long-term planning by the so-called showers-that-be, whether at clubs or federations. Yet, just last week, ASEAN, the regional association, talked of hosting the 2034 World Cup. Trying to imagine what will happen next season is tough enough but thinking two decades down the line? The head starts to hurt.
Of course, setting a long-term target does not mean automatic long-term planning will follow. Over half of Asia's federations have talked of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and while some mean it, others just admire the headlines they create and then going back to whatever they were, or weren't, doing.
With 2034, making headlines is just as easy and twitter accounts don't need a great deal of effort either. The hard part comes in putting something together. Not just something that has a chance of winning but something that has a chance of changing, something that can make a difference in South-East Asian football over the next two decades.
First though, could it actually win? And what would 'it' even look like? Nobody can predict what will happen between now and 2026 when bidding is expected to start. A quick look back at the past shows the 2007 Asian Cup hosted by Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. While that made it interesting and fun, it also made it hard work for fans, teams and journalists who had to hop between countries. The Asian Football Confederation struggled too, understandably so, as it tried to organise four groups and four quarter-finals in four different countries.
Talk of a joint Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore project may sound exciting but it is a difficult sell and not least because FIFA frowns on joint bids. Indonesia is a byword for all that is wrong in football governance. The world body should probably give Jakarta sole hosting rights and free tickets for decades to come by way of apology to fans for the controversy it has endured. Adding a World Cup to what has been a combustible mix could be just the catalyst for a positive outcome, or it could make a bad situation that much worse.
Two hosts may be possible especially if it was a Singapore/Malaysia venture. Ties are close between the two countries who, until 1965 were one country. The two share a land border that is crossed by about 60,000 cars on an average day. The road from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur can be done in four-five hours and there is talk of a new high speed rail link connecting the two cities.
Singapore could host a group or two as could the Malaysian capital. With the booming island of Penang as well as the north-east and north-western regions of the peninsula involved, it would not be too difficult and then there is the short flight across the South China Sea to eastern Malaysia and Sarawak and Sabah. It would still be a relatively compact competition and not difficult to organize. And maybe, just maybe, while co-hosting between four would not be possible, a single game could be held in Thailand and Indonesia to spread the love. Even if not, it could still involve and energise the whole of the region.
That is an ideal scenario. The current reality means that media has not reacted positively to this perceived pie-in-the-sky vanity project for administrators who should be focusing on doing their present jobs a good deal better.
The writers have a point. The region has failed to send a team to the World Cup since 1938. Cynics may see plans to host the 2034 tournament as the best way to ensure the drought doesn't hit the century mark but all can agree that efforts should be focused on getting the likes of Thailand and Malaysia on the global stage as soon as possible. Even a continental appearance would be nice. None from the region reached the 2011 Asian Cup and while it would be regrettable, it would not be a surprise in the same happened in 2015.
But dealing with the here-and-now and planning for something far in the future are not mutually exclusive. Ideally, they should go together and while administrators in the region don't exactly have a great record in getting things done, this time could be different. Bidding for 2034 should be part of a long-term development plan. Just as Japan's establishment of the J.League in 1993 and its co-hosting of the World Cup nine years later were linked, something similar could happen in South-east Asia.
Already, there are plans to start a regional ASEAN Super League in 2015 with eight franchise clubs from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore as well as smaller football nations such as Laos and Myanmar. Details are still vague but such developments, though often greeted with an almost automatic negative reaction, deserve an open mind. Things are happening in the region and South-east Asia realises that there is strength and possibility in unity.
The danger is perhaps that the region is already a little too self-contained. Already South-East Asia is a bit of a bubble, existing on its own. The national teams play each other too much and players struggle to break out. More exposure to the eastern and western edges of Asia would help. In the end though, co-operation is healthy. This is a football-loving region of over 600 million people and one of the few places in the world still developing economically at a fair rate.
If the best minds from the region can get together without agenda, self interest and/or political pressure to plan a path to the 2034 World Cup, if the journey along that path forces the more lamentable members of ASEAN to actually try and solve the fundamental problems in their domestic scenes and if the whole process can become a rallying point, a clarion call to clean up and invest in the game then everyone wins whatever happens.
These 'ifs' may be big, but then trying to win the right to host a World Cup is a big deal, no matter how far away it is. It is possible that South-East Asia will fall flat on its face but there is also a possibility that it could be the turning point that the game needs. The bid for 2034 doesn't have to win to be successful.