In January, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) floated the idea of a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup soccer finals. Last month’s Asia-Pacific Sports Conference, held in Singapore, then saw the idea do the rounds among the region’s sporting fraternity – with mixed results.
According to Singapore SportsHub chief Philippe Collin Delavaud, the idea of having an ASEAN joint bid was ‘the best’ option as both risk and reward would be shared among participating countries. Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, FIFA vice president, added that an ASEAN bid was highly possible, and that the proposal would be brought up at the next FIFA executive meeting.
But critics have noted the difficulty in resolving issues of logistics, transportation and automatic host country slots. The enormity of overcoming such obstacles isn’t lost on ASEAN. Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, while noting the immense popularity of the sport within the region, added that the task would be ‘herculean’ and part of a ‘long and arduous campaign.’
The co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup by Japan and Korea pushed Asia to the forefront of the sporting world. More recently, the success of China and India in holding large scale sporting events have also showcased Asia’s ability to compete in attracting the cream of the sporting events to the region. Perhaps more importantly, Asian hosting successes have inspired global confidence towards Asia as a lucrative sporting market for athletes and advertisers to operate in.
Nowhere is this more evident than in football, a game that actually offers some interesting parallels and insights into ASEAN politics – and the region’s relations with the rest of the world.
There’s little doubt that football is a national pastime in many ASEAN countries, but what is needed is not just enthusiasm and passion for the game, but competency and the ability to compete at the highest levels – an area in which ASEAN has often fallen short. A quick glance at the FIFA football rankings make for dismal reading: no member states are in the top 100 (Thailand is the highest, placed at 117). While there are no FIFA regulations stipulating minimum ranking requirements for host nations, surely one would expect a host to be equipped to at least compete on the field. For ASEAN to be taken seriously, participation must be accompanied by proficiency. Likewise in international affairs, for ASEAN to flourish as a regional community, it needs to be more than just present on the global stage.
Tied to this is the lack of top level experience. A recent CNN report noted, for example, that few Asians have ventured into the top European leagues, and among those who have, ‘none of them have set the world alight.’ Indeed, few footballers from this region are good enough to make a mark beyond their domestic leagues. For ASEAN football to succeed, it should possess significant representation among football’s elite, playing and performing week-in week-out. Similarly, the ASEAN worldview needs to be about more than just responding to parochial and local interests. The region’s leaders need to engage on global and international issues that include non-traditional security concerns such as climate change, food security and energy resources.
A common explanation for Asia’s shortcomings in soccer is size – players in Asia are simply smaller than many of their European counterparts and, so the argument goes, less able to cope with the high intensity, high impact character of the game elsewhere. Yet the stunning exploits of Spanish champions Barcelona have demonstrated how victory can be secured even with a relatively small team. Barcelona makes sure to play to its strengths, something ASEAN needs to master. Nimble diplomacy on the part of Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore’s hosting of the influential Shangri-La Dialogue, can help countries in the region punch above their weight.
Ultimately,the greatest obstacle to ASEAN’s dream of hosting the 2030 World Cup isn’t likely to be logistical or infrastructural, but political. Questions over ASEAN leadership, state sovereignty and historical baggage continue to evoke tensions among ASEAN member states. While tensions are an inevitable part of every relationship, the region may have to think big to overcome regional differences. Already, there’s talk of creating an ASEAN team comprising of the best players from the region – should FIFA regulations allow for this. Certainly, an ASEAN team would do much to forge co-operation by working with each country’s particular strengths. But it would also offer a useful guide for how ASEAN politics should work – increasing the region’s clout by member states contributing what they do best.
Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has lived through some tumultuous years as it has expanded its membership from five to ten. But on August 8, the 44th anniversary of ASEAN, all 10 member states hoisted the ASEAN flag in front of their embassies around the world – a symbolic gesture made with the goal for an ASEAN Community by 2015 clearly in mind.
Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, whose insistence on collective teamwork over individual brilliance has underscored his approach to football management, once said: ‘I hate to speak about individuals. Players don’t win you trophies, teams win trophies, squads win trophies.’ There’s a lesson there for ASEAN.
Benjamin Ho Tze Ern is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.