Causeway clash can stoke patriotic fires after Schooling breakthrough

Olympic swimmer Joseph Schooling proved Singaporeans will support sporting events that matter and nothing brings out the tribal fever like a Lions clash with Malaysia, argues Neil Humphreys

If Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph proved anything, it’s that patriotic support in sport cannot be bought, short-circuited or artificially manufactured.

Tribalism grows organically, in the home, in the housing estate, in the community and across the country. When it builds naturally, it’s a freight train of frenzied fandom.

That's why Schooling’s 100m butterfly final stopped a nation.

Schooling’s astonishing open-top bus parade was a moment to reflect on the lazy assumption locals won’t celebrate one of their own. Of course they will.

The Little Red Dot with the nascent sports culture hadn’t seen anything like it since Fandi Ahmad’s Dream Team of ’94 silenced the noisy neighbours.

Close encounters of the fiery kind are precious things, which is why news of the upcoming Causeway Challenge is the second example of exquisite timing in Singapore sport this week.

Just days after Schooling touched the wall ahead of Michael Phelps, the Football Association of Singapore announced the first meeting between the Lions and Malaysians in almost two years. The date is October 7. The venue is the National Stadium and the serendipity is just about priceless.

Schooling’s astonishing open-top bus parade, where Singaporeans filled streets to catch a glimpse of the swimming colossus, was a moment to reflect on the lazy assumption that locals won’t celebrate one of their own.

Of course they will. But there must be something worth celebrating first.

Schooling’s was the rarest of sporting clashes, a Singaporean against the world, taking the country into uncharted territory, a chance to get the patriotic blood pumping and wave the flag at the rest of the planet.

Schooling's breakthrough triumph has touched all Singaporeans

Singapore’s Lions are a long way from beating the best, but the Malaysians will do nicely for now, a welcome opportunity to keep the flame flickering.

There is something about Malaysia that lifts flagging spirits. Of course there is.

The myopic return to the Malaysia Super League via LionsXII was a retrograde step that was eventually corrected, but the Causeway rivalry is real and worthy of a little exploitation at national level.

Exploiting a nation’s patriotism in the sporting arena is always a tightrope walk.

Arranging TV screenings of Schooling’s final at community centres and swimming clubs was the right way to tap into his fervent support. Jumping on his bandwagon with a rush of crass, cheesy ads was the wrong way.

Even at the height of giddy euphoria, the public should not be treated as fools. But the timing of the Causeway Challenge feels right.

Ahead of the Suzuki Cup in November, the Singapore-Malaysia contest is probably the only fixture guaranteed to rouse interest beyond the small, committed Lions fan base.

In an era of endless hype and corporate spin-doctors, a Causeway clash brings an air of legitimacy. Like Schooling’s final, the public interest is authentic, established over many decades of sporting and political battles.

Is it a cynical attempt to cash in on the entrenched, occasionally antagonistic rivalry between the two countries? No doubt. But local football is hardly overwhelmed with options and the Lions could use some positive publicity.

In truth, V. Sundramoorthy’s transitional national side needs this (of course, they don’t need another defeat, particularly against the Malaysians, but we’ll cross that rickety bridge when we come to it).

The sight of Malaysian colours should do plenty to stoke Singaporean fires

Embarrassing losses against Cambodia and a Japanese university side achieved little beyond vindicating those who still subscribe to the “local is always inferior” philosophy. The shocking results certainly didn’t do Sundram any favours.

His “caretaker” coaching role and a one-year contract felt like an insult at the time, but further humiliations may justify the initial scepticism.

So there’s nothing quite like a stirring victory, or a valiant performance at least, against the oldest of enemies to buy time and build confidence ahead of the Suzuki Cup.

So far, the regional tournament has generated little interest, understandably lost in the Olympics coverage and swept aside in the Schooling hurricane. A memorable night at the National Stadium might change that.

Singapore and Malaysia are drawn in separate groups in the Suzuki Cup, which makes the pre-event warm-up more enticing, as well as providing a fillip for the S.League.

The domestic competition has inevitably struggled with the double whammy of the Olympics and the return of the English Premier League. To rub salt in the wounds, Schooling stood atop the podium on the same day the EPL season kicked off. 

The S.League was hardly uppermost in a nation’s thoughts.

But the Causeway Challenge is neatly sandwiched between the last few weeks of the domestic season, when table-topping Albirex Niigata and Jermaine Pennant’s Tampines Rovers should still be engaged in a tussle for the title. Any light shined on local football during that period will be most welcome.

Singaporeans will come out in their numbers for a sporting event that briefly awakens their stubbornly dormant patriotism. Schooling proved it. He convinced a country to unfurl a flag and stretch it proudly across the island.

The only other occasion that comes close to replicating that white heat of tribal pride is Singapore against Malaysia on a football field.

Schooling made the nation roar. It’s up to the Lions to bring back the Kallang Roar.