Spectacle can't overshadow shameful Singapore pitch

They came, they saw and they conquered, but Neil Humphreys feels that Neymar and his Brazilian mates were let down by a threadbare National Stadium pitch in Singapore.

When it comes to the state of their pitch, the management folks of the Singapore Sports Hub are behaving like a man with breadcrumbs on his chin. Maybe if they do not mention the unsightliness, no one else will. Maybe if they distract and talk about something else, something sparkly and shimmery in its samba yellow, the breadcrumbs might be forgotten about.

Perhaps the breadcrumbs will eventually fall away and that unattractive face will be saved.

Neymar and his Brazilian brothers arrived for a lucrative friendly against Japan only to discover that they were back at Copacabana Beach

The only, slight drawback with such a foolproof theory of deception is the size of the breadcrumb. This isn’t a tiny morsel that was absent-mindedly missed after being soaked in a soup bowl. This is a mountain range of embarrassing ugliness, the hairy wart of humiliation.

The National Stadium pitch is a glowing, bulbous, grit-filled zit in desperate need of squeezing. No one wants to look at it, but no one can stop staring at it either, each stolen glance more depressing than the one before. It’s scarring the otherwise pleasant complexion of an outstanding, uplifting sporting arena.

The eyesore first reared its ugly, yellow head when Juventus turned up with their buckets and spades to make sandcastles with a Singapore Selection side back in August. It was still there when Neymar and his Brazilian brothers arrived for a lucrative friendly against Japan only to discover that they were back at Copacabana Beach.

All the Kallang occasion lacked was bronzed beach volleyball teams and Barry Manilow singing about show-girls.

Brazil and Japan were deployed as more than sporting exhibitionists expected to put on a fine football show for the sell-out crowd (which the Brazilians did at least. But then, their skills were sharpened on South American beaches.) The teams also served as cosmetic foundation to cover that unattractiveness.

Unsightly sandy patches were seen all over the pitch last night. Photo: Weixiang Lim

They were brushes, powders and lipsticks, wielded by the event’s organisers (and the media in some cases) like a make-up girl working on a garishly bright counter selling eyeliners and mascara at a department store and saying things like: “Look at the bald, coarse spots on the pitch. Aren’t they ugly? Now watch carefully as I apply a little Robinho and Kaka in the right places. Can you see the complexion slowing improving? Now I dab in a little Keisuke Honda to fill those potholes and smoothen out the surface before slavering the whole surface in lashings of Brazilian history and nostalgia, focusing on silky samba rather than the more glaring fact that the pitch looks like Wayne Rooney’s pate. And finally, I take my brush and liberally apply Neymar’s four goals all over the pockmarked surface. And voila, the game suddenly looks beautiful once more.”

Watching Neymar knock over Japanese skittles on such a dreadful surface was a surreal experience akin to visiting a royal palace and discovering the interior had been designed and furnished by an over-active kindergarten kid with a plastic tool kit.

It’s hardware coming before the heart-ware once more in Singapore, with the primary objective being to fill up all available slots on the stadium’s event calendar rather than cover the glaring holes on a pitch not fit for the tender knees of primary school students; let alone multi-millionaire corporate assets playing a one-paced game to insure themselves against injury and financial loss.

Talk of the wrong climate, the wrong grass, the wrong lighting system and the wrong roof comes across as the impertinent sales patter of the shady second-hand car mechanic operating in the back streets of Jalan Besar ... It’s not my fault, bro. The car was fine when it left my garage, but you did insist on driving it. How was I to know you planned on using it? No, no, no, that’s a much trickier job now. I’m going to need at least a year to fix the car if you stubbornly insist on actually driving it.

The pitch didn't seem to faze Neymar though, as he danced his way to four goals. Photo: Weixiang Lim

It’s only a matter of time, surely, before a sign is placed around the National Stadium pitch, one that neatly symbolizes the irony of such an unfortunate situation: Keep off the grass. Look, but don’t touch. Observe, but do not participate. In a sporting sense, that is so often the Singapore way.

Without a pitch of sufficient standard, a sporting arena is an empty shell with no heart, just another monolithic motif to money.  Watching Brazilian artists kick clouds of sand in the air with each bobbled pass was a pertinent reminder that sporting spectacle, in essence, can never just be about putting bums on seats, signing cheques and pleasing sponsors.

The visit of Neymar’s superstars was a celebrity coup, rather than a sporting one. His mere presence inside the National Stadium was considered a triumph in itself, the substandard playing surface (and the tentative football that mostly resulted) were secondary concerns.

If that’s the case, then Brazil’s appearance was little different to the upcoming One Direction gig at the National Stadium, a chance to gaze and scream at celebrity royalty rather than admire football artistry in a competitive, competent setting.

They came. They saw. They cantered on an appalling pitch. Perhaps that’s all that could be expected from an international friendly played in mid-October. The game cannot always be beautiful and nostalgia can sabotage the memory.

But in this case, the grass really was greener back then. The Grand Old Lady of Kallang used to be so much prettier than this.

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.