By Michael Y.P. Ang
Only 77 countries have ever qualified for the World Cup finals. But 132 of Fifa’s 209 member countries, nearly two-thirds of the football world, have yet to savour the elite tournament for football’s holy grail.
Since World Cup qualifying is organised according to continents, Singapore should examine Asia’s experience. Only 11 of 47 Asian countries have secured qualification, meaning three-quarters have never done so.
Dutch East Indies (pre-independence Indonesia), having competed in the 1938 finals, remains the only South-east Asian country to have tasted World Cup action. 91% of Asean countries are still dreaming about it.
Football’s conventional wisdom
Conventional wisdom has it that the larger a country’s population, the better its chances of forming a strong national team, while the larger the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the better its government’s ability to fund football development.
Additionally, the lower a country’s standard of living, indicated by GDP per capita, the more miserable its people, thus the greater the motivation to pursue a better life through elite professional football.
Interestingly, 22 players from the current 23-man World Cup squad of Brazil, the only country to have played in all 20 World Cup finals, grew up in a favela (Brazilian slum). According to the International Monetary Fund’s 2013 ranking, Brazil’s per-capita GDP is a lowly 79th, while it has the world’s seventh largest GDP and fifth largest population.
Moreover, 22 of the world’s 32 most populous nations have played in the World Cup, while the four most populous that have not (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines), are obsessed with other sports – basketball and boxing in the Philippines, and cricket in the Indian subcontinent.
Football’s conventional wisdom is sound, and favourable socio-economic conditions are prerequisites for a strong footballing nation, or so it seems.
Upside-down conventional wisdom
Despite Singapore’s tiny population of 3.3 million citizens, none of whom has any compelling reason to fight for football excellence, given the Republic’s third highest per-capita GDP, there is no excuse for having an impotent national team.
Oil-rich Kuwait (17th highest per-capita GDP) is the smallest country ever to reach the World Cup finals, qualifying in 1982 when it had fewer than half a million people (around twice the population of Tampines).
Besides Kuwait, how does one account for Trinidad and Tobago’s 2006 qualification? The tiny Caribbean island nation, with 1.2 million people, has a small economy (113th) and a fairly high per-capita GDP (50th) – socio-economic conditions unfavourable for football.
There are 10 other countries that secured qualification with a population lower than five million. The most impressive of these is two-time world champion Uruguay.
Uruguay’s population is only 3.33 million. Its 88th-ranked economy is six times smaller than Singapore’s, while its standard of living is better than Brazil’s (Uruguay’s per-capita GDP is 37% higher). Yet, Uruguayan football has always been among the world’s most formidable.
Credible football leadership required
Countries that have secured World Cup qualification did so despite unfavourable socio-economic conditions. Therefore, the reason for Asean’s poor qualification rate is not socio-economic in nature but inadequate football development.
Costa Rica, whose population is 4.75 million, beat two former world champions and drew with another at the current World Cup finals. Most of its first-team players earn their living playing professionally in Europe – the key difference between Costa Rica and Asean countries.
If Singapore’s national football development programme has reaped no significant harvest for the past two decades, and there is no reasonable socio-economic explanation for it, doesn’t Singapore’s football failures lie with the way the sport is governed?
The FAS presidency has been the exclusive domain of PAP politicians since 1982. How many of them do you consider to be competent football administrators? Why does the prime minister continue to tolerate a lack of meritocracy through the parachuting of politicians into national football governance?
Football should divorce politics. The Singapore Swimming Association, which governs swimming, diving, and the always successful water polo, recently held elections to select the most qualified individuals to govern its sports. Why are there no similar elections within the FAS?
Given that tiny Uruguay’s football has so much bite, perhaps Singapore should study the Uruguayan system. Besides a sea change in football development, hopefully FAS meritocracy will be restored during Singapore’s second half-century of nationhood. Something for you to chew on, Mr Prime Minister?