Asean countries can qualify for World Cup
Fifa president Infantino says proposed expansion will boost region's hopes
No country from South-east Asia have qualified for the World Cup - Dutch East Indies' participation in 1938 notwithstanding - but that could become a reality in the future.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino has suggested an expansion of the World Cup from the current 32 teams to 40 or 48 teams in 2026, which will inevitably allow more teams from Asia to qualify.
Yesterday, in a meeting with the media at the Four Seasons Hotel, Infantino indicated his preference for a 48-team World Cup, increasing from the 40-team format he promised when he campaigned for the Fifa presidency which he won in February.
The 46-year-old Swiss-Italian is here for a three-day summit with Asian football nations.
When asked by The New Paper whether a spot could be catered to South-east Asia, Infantino did not dismiss the idea, and said: "I hope so.
"When I see the passion for football in these countries, I hope one from Asean will qualify.
"I see the enthusiasm in the past few days of the Suzuki Cup and it was an absolutely amazing semi-final which Indonesia won against Vietnam. We see the passion that exists here.
"To be able to increase the number of slots will increase the chances of seeing a team from this region participate in the World Cup... It also depends on what kind of format the Asian Football Confederation will come up with.
"I believe in the expansion of the World Cup because it means more countries involved in top football competition and more football promotion."
Before this week's summit, Infantino had the world football governing body send out five proposed World Cup formats to members of the Fifa Council.
They are very supportive on expanding it. Everyone, unanimously. All of them were in favour of an increase and a big, big, big majority were in favour of the 48 teams with the 16 groups of three. Fifa president Gianni Infantino says Asian countries back his plan to expand the World cup to 48 teams
These include two 48-team team options, two 40-team options and sticking with the present 32-team format.
Yesterday, Infantino indicated his preference for a 48-team World Cup and narrowed it down to three options.
One possibility is 16 groups of three, with the top two from each group moving on to the knockout rounds.
Another idea features 16 teams qualifying direct for the group stages and 32 nations competing for the other 16 spots in the eight groups, which will then kick off like the current format.
The 40-team version will resemble the non-linear version that was employed in the 24-team World Cups from 1982 to 1994.
In this scenario, there will be 10 groups of four, from which 10 group winners and the six best runners-up will make the Round of 16.
Infantino revealed that member associations from Europe, Asian and Oceania, who are here for the Fifa summit this week, are all in favour of a World Cup expansion, with a big majority in favour of having 48 teams.
He added: "Just to be very clear, all these formats can be played in the same number of days as currently, with the same number of stadiums, currently 12, and that the two teams qualifying for the final will play seven games.
"There is no downside for players and clubs because the calendar is not affected, but there is a big upside for football because it allows more teams to participate in the World Cup.
"We have 10 years to work towards it. The timing is right."
Dismissing criticism that an expansion would dilute the prestige of football's marquee competition, Infantino highlighted how a relatively smaller team such as Costa Rica knocked traditional powerhouses Italy and England out of the group stages at the 2014 World Cup.
The Fifa supremo also raised hopes that footballing nations from Asean could hold a joint bid to bring the World Cup to the football-mad region with a fast-expanding population that currently stands at more than 623 million.
However, as Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup and Fifa has a policy of excluding confederations that hosted the two preceding tournaments from applying, the earliest Asean can hope for the World Cup to arrive on its shores is 2034.
"I am very much in favour of the possibility of joint hosting," said Infantino.
"A World Cup has become such a big event with a lot of requirements from Fifa.
"As we need to make sure our requirements are sustainable, we need to come down to earth to some extent in this aspect.
"If a country doesn't need to have 12 stadiums which seats more than 50,000 spectators, and they have only four, why shouldn't we allow three countries to join forces, which could fit more in the football development strategy of any country?
"More countries can then participate in the dream of hosting a part of the World Cup.
"Practical and logistical topics need to be sorted out before making the bid, such as where the opening match and final will be held.
"Taxation, currency and legal issues will also have to be sorted out, so that we can have a uniformed and standardised commission for the organisation of the World Cup. All these have to be clear before the awarding of the hosting rights."