John Duerden talks about what Southeast Asia is missing out on by not being part of the World Cup.
MOSCOW – In Moscow the atmosphere is building with fans of Saudi Arabia getting ready to face hosts Russia in front of 80,000 fans on Thursday with hundreds of millions watching around the world. Thai supporters won’t need reminding that their team were unlucky to lose 1-0 to the Saudis in the opening game in the final round of qualification.
Those fans who are here don’t care. The weather in Moscow is cool and pleasant with a World Cup feeling that is starting to build. Hang around in Red Square and you will eventually see fans wearing shirts from most of the 32 nations. There is a smattering of Southeast Asian visitors on show, all looking forward to a festival of football.
Chatting to fans from the region and they all say two things. The first is how chilly it is in Russia compared to the humid homelands of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok and the second is just as predictable: how nice it would be to see their teams involved in the greatest show on earth.
In the past, you’d have to nod, smile and say something comforting about how it will happen one day but now, there is less patience and more urgency. It would be nice to say that this 2018 World Cup would be the last South-east Asian free World Cup in history but it is difficult to do so. With Asia having just four automatic places in 2022, despite the best attempts of FIFA to expand to 48, it is obviously going to be difficult for any team in the region to get to Qatar.
It is vital that nations from the region do get there however as the World Cup can take a national football scene to the next level because of the numerous benefits that a country gets from being at the World Cup.
One is the obvious fact of experience. The fact that South American and European nations have enjoyed the majority of the places at the top table for the past eight decades has greatly benefitted their game. If you have regular experience in, and exposure to, the biggest tournament in the world then it helps you stay at the top. Asia was denied access for too long and has had to play catch up.
Regular access is key. Japan and South Korea struggled initially but with improved experience, started to pick up points on the world stage because they returned and returned. China lost all their games in 2002 but have yet to make a second appearance.
It is a good thing financially. There are some federations that almost completely rely on the many millions of dollars that they get from FIFA and also, and this can be forgotten, the increased revenue they get from their sponsors at home is also very useful and keeps coming through the whole four-year cycles.
Being at the World Cup helps to grow the domestic football industry. At the very least, you get millions more people watching on television. Can you imagine how many millions of Indonesians, Thais or Vietnamese would be watching on television if their teams were there? It would create more fans and more corporate involvement in the domestic games. It also inspires. Many of the present team of South Korean internationals say that they became desperate to become a football player upon watching the team of 2002 reach the semi-finals.
🎂 | Ahn Jung-hwan was born #OnThisDay in 1️⃣9️⃣7️⃣6️⃣…
The South Korean forward is most famous for this…
18 June 2002: Scores the golden goal for South Korea to knock Italy out of the @FIFAWorldCup🏆
19 June 2002: Contract is cancelled by Italian club Perugia ✍️ pic.twitter.com/vCAIDy48wB
— Football On This Day (@footieonthisday) January 27, 2018
And there is also the shop window effect. When the national team has regular access to the World Cup then it gives more opportunities for domestic talent to shine and get noticed and then get bought and make their clubs money.
Basically, being at the World Cup regularly helps you grow as a football country. There is of course a danger that federations can focus on the tournament and that alone to the detriment of other aspects but when the World Cup is a part of a well-rounded football development plan then it is a huge benefit.
That is what Southeast Asia is missing. The region needs that door to open just a little wider and then it can push its way in. With 48 teams and eight for Asia, there will be a real chance and the likes of Thailand and then Vietnam and Indonesia will be able to seriously plan for World Cup qualification and make genuine strategic plans that are not pie in the sky.
That doesn’t mean it is not sad that this will have to wait. The atmosphere in the Russian capital is starting to build and it would have been fantastic to have some Southeast Asian flavour to this global smorgasbord of flavour, but it will come eventually.