Can Southeast Asia be the next international soccer scene?
We’re so close, we really are. With Japan and South Korea defeating the likes of Germany and Portugal at the most recent FIFA World Cup, the international Asian soccer scene is perhaps gaining more attention than ever. And yes — I called it “soccer.” Sue me.
Although neither country came out as champions, they forced the world’s attention towards the East. At face value it’s easy to assume that Japan and South Korea’s success could be credited to their sheer access to resources, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, by that same logic the United States should be a lot better than they are too — sorry, Coach Berhalter.
What if in actuality, much of Japan and South Korea’s success culminated due to neighboring governing bodies’ lack of investment in their respective countries?
What if leaders in the region, say Southeast Asia, placed as serious of a socioeconomic value on soccer as their contemporaries? Southeast Asia can be the next international soccer scene.
I understand that this is a bit of a hot take, but just hear me out.
A soccer renaissance in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia holds a complex relationship with the sport of soccer. Much like the rest of the world, it is wildly popular across the region. And coupling that with the fact that it boasts four of the top twenty most populous countries in the world — and two of the top 12 in terms of GDP per capita — it’s surely a hotbed, right?
Despite some of these indicators measuring in their favor, Southeast Asia’s soccer scene has been plagued by a plethora of other factors — namely corruption, cheating, and political grafting. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as recent years have brought forth a bit of a renaissance.
There currently exists a new opportunity to do things right; soccer’s popularity is at an all-time high in Southeast Asia. Some premier club teams are experiencing forty to fifty percent increases in attendance versus pre-COVID crowds.
A capitalization on this frenzy could not only further reinvigorate domestic socioeconomic relations, but also shift international perception of soccer in Southeast Asia from that of the “dark ages” to a more positive light.
Spending on the soccer scene
As aforementioned, two of the top 12 countries in terms of GDP are located in Southeast Asia: Singapore and Brunei. Singapore actually comes in at number two, and with a formidable population it makes for a great catalyst for regional growth.
Now I’m no billionaire, but one financial endeavor that has dramatically shaken up the industry and is poised to pay hefty dividends is the Saudi Arabian backed LIV Golf.
And I already know what you’re thinking, “what does this have to do with soccer in Southeast Asia?”
Almost nothing, but more so serves as an example of an ambitious government subsidized sporting event to spur economic growth, as well as attempt to shape the global perception of the hosting nation.
The reason I bring all of this up is because Singapore has already dipped their toes in the proverbial water, and has financed a Formula One Grand Prix every year since 2008. Since its inception the races have generated over $1.1B and brought more than 550,000 visitors to the country.
Anecdotally, Formula One racing pales in comparison to soccer’s popularity, which leads me to believe that at minimum, exploratory efforts towards a soccer expansion could prove to be economically valuable.
So why hasn’t this been done yet?
The next international soccer scene
The biggest soccer powerhouse in the region has got to be Thailand. Though they don’t quite have the international accolades to show for it yet, they are really the only country in Southeast Asia thus far to invest in an athletic future.
It wasn’t until the 2016 announcement that the 2026 World Cup would expand to forty-eight teams that the government of Thailand created the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) with hopes to incentivize youth participation, and become the first Southeast Asian nation to ever qualify for the tournament.
By financially backing this organization, the government of Thailand stands alone in letting its citizens know that sports can be a viable livelihood, thus opening the door for more people to contribute to socioeconomic growth. And we’re seeing this pretty immediately with international sponsorships from companies like Toyota, and Daikin popping up left-and-right.
It’s not far fetched to believe that Thailand can soon replicate Singapore’s racing success on a much grander scale through soccer.
Benefits of soccer
I’ve already spoken so much on the financial benefits of soccer, and luckily there’s much more to it anyway; the benefits of investing in sport transcend finances. Sports have and always will be a key way to bridge the cross-cultural divide, and allow participants an outlet to build a sense of community.
And, it is often through this community that the younger generations find the intrinsic value behind athletics — positive decision-making, reduced social alienation, and increased perceptions of self.
While Southeast Asia is very much in the beginning of this frontier, the expansive collectivist culture already perpetuates this and only further lends to exponential growth. The stage is perfectly set for these often marginalized populations to now take the global spotlight.
Read more: Hāfu: Being an NBA star between two cultures
Southeast Asia has everything it needs to succeed — booming populations, formal steps to professionalize the game, and an absolute frenzy for football. Now all that’s left is for those in positions of power to do the right thing, and 2026’s Cinderella headlines won’t be talking about Japan and South Korea.
Southeast Asia can be the next international football scene.
That’s right, I called it football. Are you happy now?
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