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Photo from: Fox Sports Asia

TOC Feature: Better things to come for S’pore football? Really?

Photo from: Fox Sports Asia
Photo from: Fox Sports Asia

By Shankar Selvam and Gangasudhan

The defence of the Malaysian Soccer League (MSL) title has failed spectacularly, and even the return of Singapore’s favourite footballing son (i.e. Fandi Ahmad) at the helm couldn’t change that destiny. We were also unceremoniously dumped from the Malaysia Cup very early in the tournament during the group stages.

The LionsXII project has a sense of vanity written all over, with players drawn out of the local S-League in the name of development and made to participate in the MSL instead. How much development can be achieved by playing in a neighbour’s league of almost equal playing quality is beyond the understanding of any sensible football fan.

While the local league suffers from falling attendances, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) continues to lavish praise on an experiment that only benefits our neighbours. 600,000 fans have been swept away by the lure of LionsXII, says FAS President Zainudin Nordin – also Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. The question is: what will this involvement do for the future of the national team? Despite questions such as this raised on Singapore’s model of football management by former Asian Football Confederation (AFC) general-secretary, Peter Velappan, the defence of this project continues, ad nauseum.

Development of Football or Football Revenue?

We now await the defence of another football title soon in the form of the Suzuki Cup.

Singapore is preparing to host it, in the midst of considerable flak for a grandiose sports hub that houses a pitch of highly-suspect condition. This pitch nevertheless played host to both Brazil and Japan in October, while Hong Kong seized the opportunity to play the Argentines in the same week as other international friendlies had been scheduled. Singapore was all too happy to offer the venue and rake in the profits from the sell-out crowd that turned up to watch Brazil and Japan play, lighted up by Neymar’s four-goal salvo, no less.

But the sad fact is that the FAS didn’t bother to take the prime opportunity to play a world class opponent. If development was truly the focus, why wasn’t a match scheduled between Brazil and Singapore? Or at the very least, against Japan? Whatever the rhetoric, the facts show that we as a nation are only interested to boost our coffers by hosting world-class sporting events such as Formula One, the WTA Masters and football matches featuring the world’s best – in ‘exhibition mode’.

When it comes to performance, our national team embarrassingly couldn’t beat a Hong Kong team, drew away to Macau (yes, they are not just a casino hub) and then finally lost the return fixture to Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, we plummeted all the way down the FIFA rankings to 161 out of 208 national teams. When dissenting voices were raised at this sorry state of affairs, Zainudin declared it’s just that we didn’t win enough matches, that’s all.

But that is definitely not all. As far as FIFA rankings go, you don’t climb up the list by playing opponents of similar standards. How many of our recent opponents were in the top 100 of the rankings? Bahrain comes close at 104, but Hong Kong is at 163 and Macau is at 208. Laughably, we have been unable to beat Hong Kong, while Macau was able to claw their way back from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw. To make matters worse we chose Laos and Cambodia (ranked 154 and 185 respectively) as our sparring partners, as a last-ditch attempt to restore some faith in the football fraternity and serve as confidence boosters for the national team – but instead, the two matches raised more questions of our national side rather than providing any reassurance.

Death by Obscurity

Neil Humphreys wrote recently that the S-League is dying. Indeed, we have fallen a long way down from the quality players who once graced the league in its inaugural season, such as Hamid Reza Estiliand Mohammad Khakpour, with every club having a national player of enviable pedigree as well. Thailand’s past greats Therdsak Chaiman and Surachai Jaturapattarapong patrolled the midfield then, and the turn of the millennium brought much promise for our national team’s prowess. Iraq was beaten in an Asian Cup qualifier and the S-League continued to earn the plaudits, even being rated by the AFC as one of the top ten leagues in Asia.

Fast-forward to season 2014, however, and the situation couldn’t be more polar opposite.

Tanjong Pagar United which placed 6th in the 2013 season and was also the losing finalist that year in the Singapore Cup has now been forced into exile, while Woodlands Wellington and Hougang United will merge together to form a new club – a decision that has left many a true fan utterly befuddled. The Hools (Hougang fan group), known for their passionate support of their club, cannot believe the events unfolding, while Woodlands, one of the founding clubs of the 1996 inaugural season, can now only look on in envy as Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa are the ones left standing intact since the league first started.

The S-League obviously needs quality players and essential resources are sorely lacking for the football clubs – which function more like societies than true professional clubs. As it is, the league has 3 foreign clubs jostling for space on the scene and each club can sign up to 5 foreign players, which makes it all the more harder for local players to grow and shine. Add to that the preference to simply funnel away all fresh resources to the LionsXII project, and all the local clubs can do is look on like the protagonist in Oliver Twist – please FAS, can we have some more?

The Chinese majority of our population is accused of not providing enough talent to bolster the playing field, as though the poor salary packages offered to the average footballer would be any sort of incentive. But as Humphreys rightly points out, “If the majority will not play, they are less likely to watch, advertise or care.” True to that observation, spectatorship is also ridiculously poor, so much so that all manner of gimmicks are employed, such as free Cinelesiure passes and Coffeebean stored-value cards for ticket purchases.

But they have hardly made an impact to draw in the crowds – worse, enterprising folks merely use the ticket purchase as a means to get the freebies but do not attend or watch the games. These gimmicks thus go as quickly as they manifest – not unlike the eye-candy attempt of some years ago, better known as the S-League Babes.

Egos Getting in the Way?

A German, appointed as our national team coach but on a two-year contract, threw in his recommendations (without a hint of success under his managerial stint thus far) and within a year, a club drops out leaving its players jobless, and two clubs with rich heritage are thoughtlessly merged. The much-maligned CEO of the S-League meanwhile seems more preoccupied with appearances and chain-of-command, as players who have already passed their 30th birthday face an uncertain future.

"My way is the right way," says the German coach, Bernard Stange, who is often hankering for players who are much younger but, in a recent squad list for the Suzuki Cup, hypocritically included many veterans. Stalwarts in the local league continue to be largely ignored while players with arguably lesser calibre from Courts Young Lions and LionsXII continue to be selected, despite being not even worth a place in their respective club’s starting line-up.

This incredible series of calamities may all simply lead back to the FAS president himself. Yes, under the reign of Zainudin Nordin, the MSL title was delivered and the Suzuki Cup returned to our shores after many years. But apart from these accomplishments, what else is there to crow about? His claim to fame remains the LionsXII project, which was reportedly to bring back the crowds and revive the halcyon days of the 90’s. The justification was that the team participating in the M-League would form the foundation of the national team in time to come – and it was a justification that seemed to hold water when Singapore won the Suzuki Cup in 2012.

However, when we look back at the national side that won the cup for the first time in its history some 16 years ago, it was almost completely made up of players from the S-League. Back then, after being unceremoniously told to leave the Malaysian Semi-Pro League in 1995, Singapore believed in its own league and developed local football with a vengeance. And the S-League did succeed in that regard, the culmination being the incredible Suzuki Cup win of 1998. So why has the support for the S-League gone southwards in recent times?

23 of the 35 players selected for the Suzuki Cup competition this year has come from the FAS' two favourite clubs– LionsXII and Courts Young Lions. But these clubs didn’t have the best of seasons in their respective league competitions (i.e. MSL and S-League).Warriors FC, Tampines Rovers and Home United, finishing among the top four of the S-League this year, have a representation of only six players in the final cut in the national team slated for the Suzuki Cup. This non-selection of local talents from the S-League is indeed telling.

Zainudin, FAS president
Zainudin, FAS president

The ultimate tragedy, of course, is the disorientation of current players plying their trade in the local league. What are their chances of getting picked, without them being part of the vanity project LionsXII or the development club Courts Young Lions? Are there unseen forces from Zainudin’s office that dictates that most players called up to the national side must be from LionsXII and Courts Young Lions? Lim Chin (S-League CEO) referred to “Harimau Muda and the Young Lions, they are teams that we need to support in the bigger picture.” But that sounds like a death knell for local clubs, evidenced by the downsizing of the S-League, despite the lame claim that it is to help spread the resources better – a story that no football fan is buying.

Restore Faith and Success Will Follow

Among the many things Zainudin has said, one was that more kids should be playing the game regularly at a young age so that this will expand the pool available for elite football development. But how sustainable of a career can football be, if after going through the development process you can’t get in through the doors of either LionsXII (subject to approval of continuous participation in the M-League, of course) or Courts Young Lions? What is the point of expanding this pool of players when anyone outside stellar talent can expect to be jobless by the age of 30 – which is ironically considered the peak period of ability for a professional footballer?

Zainudin’s current pet interest and aspiration is to get the rights to host the FIFA U17 World Cup, so that – according to him – it can raise Singapore’s footballing profile further and lead to enhanced youth development. Strangely though, it is a project that he does not intend to see to fruition since making it clear that he will be stepping down as FAS President after 2015. It may seem like déjà vu to the experienced fan who has been following the Singapore football scene for some time – remember the Goal2010 vision that turned brown and sandy almost as quickly as the world-class hybrid pitch of our Sports Hub?

When it was first mooted at the National Day Rally in 1998 by our Prime Minister at the time, it was pitched as a vision that would be aspired regardless of achievement – i.e. if we failed to meet 2010, we would work towards 2014 and then 2018, and so on. However, even before the ink had dried in 2004, the FAS President of the time, Mah Bow Tan, downplayed its boldness by acknowledging that there was no confidence in the vision on account of the national team’s poor performances. This mysterious creature was thereafter not heard of again until the national youth team did uncharacteristically well as hosts in the football competition at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) 2010, when reference was suddenly made to Goal 2010 as if it had been achieved as planned.

It seems as though visions and goals insofar as local football is concerned come at the whims and fancies of the head honcho. Without any thought or commitment to truly developing our football culture into something we can all get behind and be proud of, time and again it is just smoke and mirrors for the purpose of the moment. Again, here we find the champion of the LionsXII project now throwing up another grand ‘goal’ to aspire to, but all it really is, is a desperate attempt to use a spectacular facade to attract sponsors into investing in football locally for the short term.

It is high time to use that excellent long-term planning talent that Singapore is famed for and establish solid infrastructure such as a fully-functioning professional football league and football development programmes that are based on documented success instead of baseless ideas of clueless talking heads. Only then will committed sponsors be willing to back the local football scene with the type of long-term support it really deserves.