What would an expanded World Cup mean for Southeast Asia?
With FIFA making the wrong kind of headlines yet again this week, it was either the best or the worst time to put something else out there for the international media to digest and debate: expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 40.
The move seems as inevitable as more arrests and allegations into the governing body. Most nations clearly won’t say no to a greater possibility of reaching the biggest sports tournament on the planet and all that goes with it.
Expansion always provokes a frank exchange of opinions and did so back in the day when the number of teams increased from 16 to 24 ahead of the 1982 World Cup.
It was a decision that The Observer labeled that same year a “monstrous folly”. It was repeated when 24 became 32 and will be again when 40 is confirmed.
Suddenly the dream moves from distant to doable
If and when it happens, it is unlikely Europe and South America will receive an increased allocation, but Asia is likely to benefit. The current four-and-a-half allocation could increase to six, perhaps more.
Given the winless disaster zone Brazil 2014 was for the continent, that may not be especially welcomed elsewhere in the football world. But you can be sure that few Asian members of FIFA will be raising their hands when the time comes to vote against the measure.
This is something that will be warmly welcomed by members of the Southeast Asian football family. It doesn't need to be mentioned that the region has not been represented on the world stage since 1938. None have really come close since and people could be forgiven for thinking that four, six, seven or eight places are not going to have much of an impact on ASEAN – but they would be wrong.
Improving the continent's allocation by 50 per cent or so opens up possibilities. The first is that 2026 is obviously quite some time away and the ‘30s and ‘40s are so far into the future as to be almost unimaginable. A decade is a long time in football. Look back to 2005 and Manchester City were a mid-table team, South Korea had just reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and Buriram United were still some time away from even existing.
If we look at the strides that Thailand have made in the past few years, it would be disappointing if the country was not in the running for qualification at some point in the next decade, regardless of whether expansion takes place. Indeed, there is a chance this could happen for 2018. The challenge is whether other teams in the region can follow in the War Elephants' steps over the next decade.
Expansion is not just about who qualifies, it is about giving hope and encouragement and revitalising the qualification process (and it is here where the biggest effects will be felt). It may well be that by the time 2026 rolls round there are no teams from the region who make it to wherever it is held, but there should be some who are in with a shout.
More spots means more dreams. Thailand, obviously, but there are others. If Indonesia can get their act together, and that is obviously one of the biggest ifs you will ever come across, then it can provide hope. Malaysia and Vietnam could be considered in the same situation too.
At the moment, it is hard for these countries to imagine elbowing the likes of South Korea, Japan and Australia aside. In August, Carlos Queiroz told this writer that those three have a “World Cup credit card” that grants automatic access to the tournament. It leaves, he said, seven other nations fighting over one spot and if the national team coach of Iran – one of the giants of Asian football – thinks this, what chances do Thailand and the other have?
Even if those three nations are still out on their own in 2026 and then into the decade beyond, expansion makes that less of an issue. There is an old saying that if you are with your friends being chased by a bear then you don't need to be faster than the bear, being able to outrun just one of your chums will save your skin. Perhaps there is something in that for the World Cup.
With more spots on offer, the likes of Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam do not have to worry so much about being able to beat Japan, something that seems a long way away. They can focus on trying to catch the second tier of Asian nations. The Samurai Blue are one thing, but the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iraq and Uzbekistan don't seem quite so formidable. Suddenly, it does not seem quite so hard.
And that gives motivation. Suddenly the dream moves from distant to doable, the mission from impossible to … well, you get the picture. That should inspire teams and federations, it will make the qualification process even more competitive, and this will benefit everyone. Given some decent governance and decisions, there is no reason why Southeast Asia's biggest and best can't go all the way into the expanded World Cup.
With the population, the passion and the increasing understanding about what is needed to succeed, the carrot of a chance of the World Cup can change everything. And a chance is all that is needed.