There is much to ask of the people in charge of charting the future of football in Singapore when it comes to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) target of the national team qualifying for the World Cup in 2034—a target dubbed GOAL 2034.
This was said by former sports correspondent for TODAY, Jose Raymond on Sunday (21 February) when he addressed the country’s goal to qualify for the biggest international sporting event in football in a Facebook post.
The former politician from Singapore People’s Party recounted roughly two decades of Singapore football history, starting with the remark by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1998 who said, “Maybe if we change our immigration criteria to bring in top football talent and make them citizens, then one day we too can get into the (World Cup) finals.”
Mr Raymond went on to recount the journey of the Singapore national football team, known as The Lions, over the years including how the team has yet to secure gold at smaller events such as the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games).
Mr Raymond noted, “Latching on to how France had lifted the World Cup in 1998 through a team made up of immigrants and sons of immigrants, Singapore’s Number 1 [PM Goh] then made a case which then gave birth to Goal 2010, Singapore at the World Cup project.
“It was also a way for the Government to have Singaporeans embrace foreigners in our midst, and for them to help us win football’s greatest prize.”
However, this lofty goal would end up being a bitter disappointment as The Lions failed to secure medals in the SEA Games, or make it to the semi-finals of the regional Tiger Cup tournaments after winning in 1998, let alone qualify for the World Cup.
Around 2004 after the national team saw a change in management and the change of FAS presidents, “The Goal 2010 project was dropped like a tonne of bricks,” wrote Mr Raymond.
In place of that, however, the FAS then came up with a ‘Roadmap’ for Singapore football, which included goals of becoming the top ranked football nation in ASEAN, among the top 10 in Asia and qualify for the Asian Cup by 2009.
While there were some bright spots—such as winning the ASEAN championship twice in 2004/2005 and again in 2007—the Lions did not make it to the Asian Cup nor ranked in the top 10 in Asia.
Though the team, under Serbian manager Radojo Avramovic, did make it to the third round of the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers, it still did not win the gold at the SEA Games. PM Goh’s vision was still close but unattainable.
After Avramovic left, the team was led by Bernd Stange and technical director Michel Sablon.
However, as Mr Raymond described, “Both left with nothing much to show except for the fact that Singapore football had sunken far deeper into the football abyss, despite Sablon having proclaimed in 2015 that Singapore would be like Japan by 2020.”
Not only did the national team not perform well on the international stage, the youth team—dubbed the Young Lions—“get smashed regularly at regional competitions as well”, said Mr Raymond.
“So when the people in charge suddenly put together a project, which apparently is aiming for Singapore to qualify for the World Cup in 2034, don’t mind us for showing little belief or faith that the vision will materialise into anything but heartache and worse, a waste of financial resources,” he chided.
What does the data say about the status of local football?
Mr Raymond goes on to ask about the state of local football in Singapore, including hard data on how many people follow the sport. He noted that Sports Singapore data shows that running, swimming, and cycling all rank higher on the Sports Participating Index as compared to football.
He asked, “Does Singapore football still command the same feverish following as it did in the past?”
Mr Raymond suggested commissioning a study to elicit responses from a wide spectrum of society.
Beyond just spectator interest, he also asked about the level of resources and effort put into encouraging football at the school levels.
“How many schools in Singapore offer football as a sport? What happened to the School Football Academies project which was announced by the FAS in 2017?” he wrote.
“Do parents believe that their children will have a decent future in football as a career in Singapore and what will it take to have them do so?”
On this note, Mr Raymond also suggested that a study be conducted among parents who have children involved local football and those who don’t to find out their thoughts on the matter.
At the FAS level, Mr Raymond asked if the Association has done enough on its own to “gather corporate support, build on the sport in Singapore over the last 20 years?”
He also asked, “How has the current management team fared based on its own manifesto released during the 2017 elections for office bearers? What has been current technical director Joseph Palatsides’ contribution to Singapore’s football since arriving in May 2019 and what has he done to awake Singapore, the “sleeping football giant?”
Mr Raymond added, “Has the FAS explained what led to the failure of Goal 2010, the subsequent Roadmap, the national ambition to win the SEA Games gold in 2015 in Singapore and its current state of performance malaise?”
On top of that, Mr Raymond also raised questions in terms of government investment in the sport, asking “Is football worthy of the taxpayers’ contributions?”
He called on the government to reveal how much the GOAL 2034 project would cost taxpayers and also investing more in and developing other sports that Singapore might excel in instead of football.
This is a sentiment voiced by many netizens when Culture, Community, and Youth Minister Edwin Tong spoke on Singapore’s effort to qualify for the 2034 World Cup. Back in 2019 when Mr Tong was the vice president of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), he had revealed the ambitious plan to qualify for the biggest international football event.
Should the State remain steadfast in its goal to qualify for the 2034 World Cup, Mr Raymond asked who would lead such a project which involves multiple ministries— Ministry of Education, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs while being led by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
Mr Raymond concluded that while Singapore may have the interest to channel into achieving such a goal, it might not have the wealth or even the size.
Though he did concede that much smaller nations have made it to the World Cup including Uruguay with 3.4 million population, Trinidad and Tobago with 1.4 million, Northern Ireland with 1.9 million and Iceland with only 356,000.
Still, Mr Raymond warned; “While it is fortuitous that Singapore now has people like billionaire Forrest Li of Sea Group and Shopee fame who is willing to pour his money into helping steer local football, Forrest Li alone is not a sustainable solution to the failed society-driven Singapore Premier League club model, where some clubs are still known to pay players peanuts as former international Faritz Hameed recently highlighted in a podcast.”
He concluded, “There are lots of emotional and sentimental reasons to support football, but let’s look at data, logic, facts and the track record and history of the sport instead.”
“Because as of today, Singapore has not won the SEA Games football gold medal despite having tried since 1959.”