Bringing back foreigners won’t bring back glory days

Lions XII’s plan to include four foreigners not only makes a mockery of developmental team claims, it also kills off the S.League, argues Neil Humphreys.

Fire up the DeLorean. We’re heading back to 1994. Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads to long-term grassroots development.

The local game doesn’t require the services of Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) technical director Michel Sablon. It’s got Doc Brown and Marty McFly in tight jeans, waiting for that lightning bolt to send us back to the Dream Team.

According to the Football Association of Malaysia, the FAS has sought permission to include four foreign players in next season’s Lions XII squad.

Singapore once prevailed with locals and foreigners coming together to defeat those dastardly enemies up north, uniting a nation beneath the Dream Team banner. Fandi Ahmad and Jang Jung’s band of brothers acted as an emollient more than any other sporting achievement before or since.

So why not go back to the future and pick a Singapore Selection XI to take on those Machiavellian Malaysians? They’re already playing with foreigners.

Johor Darul Ta’zim were stuffed to the gills with different passports, gorging on overseas fare as they cantered towards the Malaysia Super League title.

LionsXII struggled on the road throughout the campaign. It was never a level playing field for a side filled only with Singaporeans.

So if they can bolster the ranks with foreign reinforcements and perhaps recapture a little of that 1994 spirit, which always goes down well with nostalgia addicts, then a step back in time might be the way to proceed.

If only. In reality, this line of reasoning has more flaws than the LionsXII’s defensive record in Malaysia.

First, the world of 1994 no longer exists. It expired shortly after the Dream Team finished their lap of honour. If a multinational LionsXII side jump in the DeLorean and head across the Causeway next season, they’ll encounter an alternate reality. A bit like the one Doc and Marty discovered when they returned to 1985, where Marty’s dad was dead and bully Biff ran the town.

In this alternate 1994, the bullying English Premier League rules the world via its insidious army of satellites. Decades of match-fixing soured the domestic product for casual observers long ago, whilst others swapped football heroes at the local stadium for Farm Heroes in the palm of their hand.

The Dream Team’s days are done. They cannot be recreated because the environment in which they flourished perished years ago.

Besides, there is a confused elephant in the room with “developmental squad” stenciled along its broad side.

When a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two nations in 2011, LionsXII were tagged as a developmental squad gaining experience in a competitive foreign league, with Malaysian side Harimau Muda doing likewise in the S.League.

This caveat was a critical sweetener for all concerned parties. Despite the average age of a LionsXII footballer changing more times than Cliff Richard, the passport colour at least remained the same.

The Malaysians were pacified that LionsXII wouldn’t trundle across the Causeway on a Trojan horse, with foreign ringers hidden away to attack unwitting MSL defences and humiliate their hosts.

Sceptical Singaporeans were encouraged to believe that the LionsXII project was not a transparent attempt to rekindle local interest via a dubious reconnection to the Dream Team. It was a noble effort to turn on a conveyor belt of nascent talent from the Courts Young Lions to the national side, via some field experience across the Causeway.

This was a tenuous, even controversial, claim because a competition already existed with an identical mandate and an established template.

It was called the S.League.

But Singapore’s only professional sports league had its initial fears eased as its major point of difference was reiterated. The S.League could select foreigners. The LionsXII couldn’t.

So the domestic league offered an international spectacle and gave young Singaporeans the chance to learn from more experienced foreigners before hopefully being earmarked for LionsXII duties.

But if the LionsXII provide similar services for fans and footballers, what is the point of the S.League? If one subtle amendment is agreed between the FAM and the FAS, then the S.League’s validity will be questioned. The face-saving reason for its existence is surely negated.

LionsXII’s potential inclusion of foreigners seems like a retrograde step. If the myopic goal is to beat the next-door neighbours in a foreign, state competition, then Sablon’s 187-page grassroots manual is less important than throwing a dozen local and foreign players together to beat Johor Darul Ta’zim.

Never mind the local boys who have no left foot. Import a handful of foreign journeymen from the transfer market’s halfway house and complete a first-world nation’s inglorious return to kampong football instead.

The best four foreigners will join the LionsXII, administering the coup de grâce to a dying S.League whilst allowing supporters to watch a Singapore Selection side every week (instead of when Arsenal and Everton pop by for an exhibition).

With an irrelevant domestic league and a multinational Singapore side taking on the Malaysians, the journey to yesterday will be complete.

But few will party like it’s 1994.