Singapore’s National Stadium wants football, not farce

With Juventus set to baptise the first football match at the new National Stadium in Singapore, Neil Humphreys gives his two cents on the Italians' final opponents of their #JuveTour, a Singapore Selection...

Amid much hoopla, Singapore will celebrate its shiny, gleaming, brand spanking new National Stadium with an exhibition game against Juventus on August 16. 

Singapore is very good at hoopla. Expect fireworks, some corporate sponsored prizes and lots of handshakes between important, perspiring men in suits. But Singapore’s ability to field a suitable team has always been a tougher task as Juventus will take on a Singapore Selection side, complete with capital letters.

A Singapore Selection sounds like a box of chocolates for tourists. It’s a last-minute gift picked up at the airport, complete with a truffle guide that highlights the strawberry-filled Merlions and the Marina Bay Sands’ caramel crunches. The Italians will not be facing a box of chocolates, but they will have no idea what they’re going to get. A Singapore Selection is so vague, so uncertain. It’s not a best XI, or even an average XI, but a Singapore Selection.

The title sounds almost politically correct, as if the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will treat the line-up like a poster for a national campaign and ensure that the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians are equally represented – with a guest appearance from the Others (those aliens that land at Changi Airport periodically to tick the box marked “others”. They sound like terrifying extra-terrestrials to me – and I’m one of them.)

Perhaps the Singapore Selection is an example of the organisers slyly hedging their bets. Like a Sunday park kickabout with old kakis, they’re concerned that a player may fail to show. There’s always one who forgets to set the alarm, oversleeps, wakes in another woman’s apartment and misses the game.

But the general, non-specific Singapore Selection moniker means organisers can grab someone from the stands to make up the numbers. Now that’s a sales pitch to sceptical supporters wary of forking out for the hefty ticket prices. Bring your boots. Bring your passport. You might get 20 minutes in the second-half.

In truth, the Singapore Selection side will be made up of the Lions and “foreign stars” from the S-League, who will be likely to face Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. They might as well pick a couple of fans from the crowd.

Fancy taking these gents on?

But these exhibition matches are, quite frankly, weird. They can be surreal. Essentially, Europe’s bright lights swing by the sunny island to pick up their cheques, play keep ball for 90 minutes, swap shirts with their star-struck opponents and ask where they can pick up Singapore Selection chocolates for their wives.

I’ve covered these games in the past. I’ve devoted chapters to them in my books. At the old National Stadium back in 2001, Manchester United took on a Singaporean side and the home crowd cheered the Red Devils every pass, move and goal (there were quite a few). So, in effect, they were cheering against their own country. That’s like standing at the side of the bed and applauding your wife for sleeping with the big brute across town. You’re cheering whilst wearing one of his shirts, which you paid him $100 for, and you’re singing one of his favourite songs and waving your arms in the air like you just don’t care.

Fortunately, Juventus don’t have quite the emotional appeal of Manchester United in Singapore (or the commercial reach. That’s why they’re here. They’re not flying over for photos with the Merlion.) Hopefully, supporters will back their Singapore Selection and match the Italian expats panting for Pirlo. For the first time in more than a decade, Singapore can attract the finest sports franchises and the biggest names in arts and entertainment. They have a venue to host the world’s most talented artists. And Coldplay. So it’s important that the Juventus friendly is a proper football match, not a farce. The Singapore Selection must offer worthy opponents to the Serie A giants. Neither side should pick Mickey Mouse players for the sake of it. 

But I’m bringing my boots just in case.

From the FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore August 2014 issue. Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.