President Rodrigo Duterte joined fellow Southeast Asian leaders during the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the ASEAN and FIFA, football's world governing body, in Thailand on Saturday.
The development, which kicked off the ASEAN Summit Plenary in Bangkok, is a gesture of support for the region's plan to jointly host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, even though only 5 countries are officially part of the bid — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha of Thailand announced the unified bid in June.
On Saturday, all 10-member countries were summoned to the stage and handed a football kit, including Duterte, who was assigned No. 10.
The message behind the distribution of jerseys was "we're all part of the same FIFA team," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.
The MoU was signed by Infantino and ASEAN Secretary-General Dato' Lim Jock Hoi and witnessed by the ASEAN leaders.
"We have the same mission. Our common mission is to give hope and give smiles to our youth and I can assure you if you take a ball and give it to a girl or a boy, they will smile immediately," Infantino said.
"That's why it's our duty and our thrust to come here to work together to invest. To invest in our youth."
Asia has held soccer's international showpiece once when Japan and South Korea were joint hosts in 2002, the only time the tournament was hosted by more than one country.
The idea of ASEAN hosting the World Cup was first mooted at the beginning of the decade and advocates say the move could help the region's profile and integration.
But Southeast Asian national teams are relative minnows with none having ever qualified for the World Cup finals, and soccer leagues in the region still have a long way to go to reach international standards despite football being very popular in a region that is home to more than 640 million people.
"Through this MOU, we look forward to a stronger football and sporting community in the region that builds on unique regional identity and sense of community," ASEAN's secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi said.
FIFA promised to bring foreign investment and create job opportunities in ASEAN with the deal, saying Southeast Asians "deserve it."
"People in your country, businesses in your country, invest 10 times more in European football than football in ASEAN. We need of course to invest in ASEAN," Infantino said.
He did not give any targets for spending on investment.
— With a report from Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um, Reuters
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