Bend it like Pennant: Is Jermaine Singapore's version of Beckham?

The Tampines winger’s biggest contribution isn’t goals and assists, it’s making Singapore a genuine option for men like John Arne Riise, argues Neil Humphreys

If Jermaine Pennant becomes Singapore football’s answer to David Beckham, then his old Liverpool teammate John Arne Riise could be the S.League’s Lionel Messi.

The S.League no longer belongs to those loyal ticket holders who shuffle along the concrete blocks to sit beneath roosting pigeons

Yes, I’ll admit there was a certain puerile pleasure in throwing all those names into the same sentence. Never again will Riise be compared to Messi. They do not play in the same position. They do not play on the same planet.

But the comparison is not cynical click-bait, but a realistic appraisal of the long-term impact Pennant may yet have on the local game.

The Tampines winger’s most significant return on his investment isn’t goals and assists. It’s opening the door.

He’s on the cusp of making the S.League a viable retirement plan for respectable footballers, rather than an easy punch line.

Pennant is bending conventional wisdom like Beckham.

With impeccable timing, Riise hinted that he would seriously consider joining his former Anfield colleague on the same day Messi was linked to Beckham’s MLS franchise Miami United.

Neither move may come to pass, but the fact that they are being discussed without sniggering demonstrates remarkable progress.

The S.League, like Major League Soccer in the United States, is no longer a joke. The ripple effects of a brand signing are slowly spreading.

Of course, this is only a month-old phenomenon and it’s important not to be swallowed whole by the hyperbole. Pennant’s overriding responsibility is to stop local football from flat-lining; a task he has taken on with impudent relish. But it’s still early days.

Nevertheless, it’s worth reminding younger readers of the marvelously cheeky stories that once linked the S.League to established superstars.

Riise in action in Singapore at the weekend. Photo: Standard Chartered Trophy

Basically, an elderly statesman of the English Premier League would pop over in the off-season for a steak at Raffles Hotel, free-flowing beer at the Singapore Cricket Club, some entertainment at Chijmes and, if fitness permitted, a gentle jaunt around a Padang pitch to appease corporate sponsors.

Naïve, rookie reporters – such as this one in the late 1990s – would be dispatched to ask the travelling band of twilight footballers what they thought of Singapore. Naturally, they loved it.

They were also asked to comment on the standard of local football, having witnessed 15 minutes of it at the Padang. Being polite, they praised it.

So, inevitably, they were then pressed for an answer on whether they might consider dragging their thirty-something bodies around a pockmarked S.League pitch for the kind of salary they were probably paying their housekeeper to maintain their mansion back in England.

Sure, they said. They’d be open to playing in a league they’d never really heard of. They’re not going to be rude to their hospitable hosts, are they? So for the best part of a decade, everyone from Lee Sharpe to Robbie Fowler was linked to an S.League club.

But they never came. Of course they didn’t. And sceptical readers rarely took their polite overtures seriously.

And then Pennant showed up.

His match stats are less relevant than his mere presence. He brings the cult of celebrity, a built-in, wide-eyed cable TV generation raised almost exclusively on the EPL product. Some 3,551 of them packed Bishan Stadium last week to watch him curl a free-kick into the top corner against Home United.

The goal was immediately all over social media like a rash.

Beckham had an influence on Gerrard's move to LA

The S.League no longer belongs to those loyal ticket holders who shuffle along the concrete blocks to sit beneath roosting pigeons. Anyone with a Twitter account is invited to jump on the Pennant bandwagon.

For the best part of a decade, everyone from Lee Sharpe to Robbie Fowler was linked to an S.League club

Riise said he knew little about the S.League, but plenty about Pennant’s move to Tampines. Speaking at the Standard Chartered Trophy finals at Jalan Besar on the weekend, the 35-year-old admitted the transfer had piqued his interest.

The former Liverpool and Roma left-back is a free agent and if the S.League is good enough for Pennant …

A number of ageing superstars have expressed similar sentiments about North America. If the MLS was good enough for Beckham …

In truth, the former LA Galaxy midfielder enjoyed a spotty career in the MLS. The Beckham experiment began with a dazed icon wondering what he’d done, swapping the game’s giants for honest toilers rarely on his wavelength.

But by the end of his six-year stint, he had settled into his role as trailblazer. Even a couple of MLS Cups were less important to the Beckham brand than his legacy of league lifesaver.

The Hollywood hero won over Tinseltown, but the Beckham effect went much further as the MLS developed large fan bases in the far-flung corners of the Northwest, in places such as Portland, Oregon.

Pennant only has to bring them in from Pasir Ris and Jurong.

And he’s not expected to attract Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard or Andrea Pirlo either. Footballers of Riise’s calibre will do very nicely for now.

But if the characters are different, the essential storylines overlap. Without Beckham, the agents of Henry, Gerrard and Pirlo do not take calls from MLS representatives. Without Pennant, no one takes Riise’s comments seriously.

And that’s already a profound contribution to the local landscape.

When reputable footballers were linked to the S.League in the past, they laughed. Now, they listen.

READ ALSO: Riise interested in joining Pennant in the S.League