The S.League is clearly dying, but who really cares?

With the S.League competition over for another year and Tanjong Pagar United on the way out, Neil Humphreys delivers some hard truths about Singapore premier football competition.

The S.League wasn’t always like this you know.

At the risk of sounding like a whimsical grandparent recounting tales of wooden rattles and brown leather balls, it’s hard not to be nostalgic about the good old days because the S.League’s old days were mostly good. There wasn’t the need to purchase an expensive lighting contraption back then. The grass really was greener.

Too many stakeholders have for too long stood around the S.League’s hospital bed, pretending not to hear the slowing heart rate beeps, as if waiting for a minister to come in and turn the machine off.

Those halcyon days are now at risk of becoming an urban myth, less plausible than wild tigers at Pulau Ubin but not quite as daft as the Loch Ness Monster. At the Singapore Writers Festival last weekend, a couple of teenage faces nodded politely when I suggested that Singapore’s only professional sports league was once blessed with genuine European talent and World Cup veterans. Their plastic smiles betrayed their incredulity, as if they were indulging a daft old uncle claiming that TV shows used to be screened only in black and white.

But the S.League was once a fine spectacle, with an eclectic mix of exhibitionists, artists, anarchists and Alexsandar Duric (he gets his own category).

Dragan Talajic, a Croatian, was so relieved to be earning a respectable living away from his war-torn homeland, he opted to ignore the rather obvious fact that he was far too accomplished a keeper for the S.League. But he stayed nonetheless, marshaling a Tanjong Pagar defence with Singapore Lions like Lim Tong Hai. While in midfield, Iran’s World Cup star Majid Motlagh pulled more strings than a puppeteer with a nervous twitch.

And that was just one S.League team. Every side had either Fandi Ahmad’s salmon-like leaping, V Sundramoothy’s freewheeling back heeling, Jason Ainsley’s lung-busting, Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin’s impudence or Zsolt Bucs’ telepathy. Mirko Grabovac terrified defenders, Therdsak Chaiman terrified midfielders and Surachai Jaturapattarapong terrified sub-editors. After the Malaysia Cup heyday, the S.League was, very briefly, the Mustafa Shopping Centre of modern football: colourful, unpredictable and stuffed with decent foreign imports at reasonable prices but always quintessentially Singaporean.

The last of the Jaguars

But the nostalgic, hazy eye is focused on Tanjong Pagar for a couple of reasons. First, there is a smidgeon of self-interest. I once served as a fan club volunteer, where I was essentially employed to come up with new terrace chants. As the most popular chant at Queenstown Stadium was “de-fend … clear the ball … de-fend … clear the ball”, I didn’t expect the job to be unduly taxing. However it soon became evident that once all the archaic, offensive elements had been removed from the West Ham chants of my childhood, I was only left with, “You’re going home in a f******* ambulance.”

Still, it was a glorious time. Tanjong Pagar’s Queenstown Stadium rarely had an empty seat as the S.League ushered in a new Millennium with high hopes.

And now Tanjong Pagar are gone.

That’s the other, far less indulgent reason for highlighting the Jaguars. Earlier this week, the S.League announced that Tanjong Pagar would sit out next season as the competition is downsized from 12 to 10 teams. Woodlands Wellington and Hougang United will also merge, a bewildering decision that in terms of heritage, size and geography makes about as much sense as Everton merging with Stoke.

But needs must. The S.League is dying.

Sugar coating at this stage serves no purpose. The flat-lining local football industry doesn’t need the whimsy of Mary Poppins, but a spoonful of Alan Sugar. Too many stakeholders have for too long stood around the S.League’s hospital bed, pretending not to hear the slowing heart rate beeps, as if waiting for a minister to come in and turn the machine off.

Dwindling crowd figures were downplayed, glossed over or unreported. Public and private interest dwindled. Potential sponsors ran for the hills. Recruiting scouts saw their nets cut as the foreign talent pool dried up. Whatever hardcore support remained was practically lifted wholesale and dropped into the Jalan Besar Stadium beneath a banner marked “Lions XII”, leaving behind the charred remains of a football competition and that old, irritating elephant in the room.

Hard truths for hard times

Singapore just cannot attract its dominant race to play its most dominant sport.

The Chinese make up more than 74 per cent of the resident population and yet in the latest Singapore squad, Gabriel Quak is the only Chinese representative. If the majority will not play, they are less likely to watch, advertise or care. How many professional football leagues elsewhere could be sustained by just over 20 per cent of their resident population?

The answer to the S.League’s malaise is easy, but who fancies walking on sharpened eggshells to address such a culturally sensitive minefield? Besides, does the demand even exist in the first place? Few are banging down the door to change a nation’s hitherto successful, pragmatism-first approach to a child’s education and career choices.

From top to bottom and back up again, there is little compelling evidence of a collective desire to create a deep-rooted sporting culture, particularly when it can be so readily imported in palatable, bite-sized packages like the Formula 1, the WTA Masters and the odd Brazilian football exhibition. Is it something Singapore particularly covets? In the words of Michael Corleone, we need more lawyers.

So the embattled S.League becomes what it was perhaps always destined to be, a cultural and economic dead weight, with beleaguered officials introducing reforms with all the conviction of deckchair handlers on the Titanic. A club drops out, two more are merged, some age restrictions are introduced and a handful of footballers must find new employers. 

But these are minor surgeries at a time when the majority obviously needs a change of heart, a change of mindset. Even if the sudden intervention temporarily stems the bleeding, the S.League is still fighting for its life.

All Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo

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.