Dream Team reminds us of current nightmare

SG50 celebrations not only highlight how special the 1994 Lions really were, they also point out what we’ve lost as a nation, argues Neil Humphreys...

Nostalgia is a tricky business. It confounds logic, but stirs the soul.

Matches were bigger, the goals better and the players greater. As the years pass, the achievements are magnified. Gleaming Malaysia Cup trophies become the Holy Grail as men tiptoe towards immortality.

But in the case of the 1994 Dream Team, it was true, all of it.

The colour-drained footage of Singapore’s 4-0 victory over Pahang has only stood up to the ravages of time. Abbas Saad and Fandi’s Ahmad’s goals, Rafi Ali and Lee Man Hon’s deliveries, Lim Tong Hai’s unflappability, Malek Awab’s stature, Jang Jung’s tigerish tackling and David Lee’s rock of Kallang are all present and correct.

They are not analog footballers from a pre-digital era. They are fine wines. Their achievements improve with age.

And right now, they are everywhere. SG50 has a nation glancing over its shoulder, often with rose-tinted spectacles. But in the case of the 1994 Dream Team, it’s easy to look back without prejudice. They really were that good.

FourFourTwo is running an interview series on the Dream Team. Channel NewsAsia is airing a reunion series, bringing back groups of prominent Singaporeans from yesteryear. The episode that reunited the 1994 Malaysia Cup winners proved to be one of the most popular.

Dream Team 1994

Twenty-one years later, Fandi still puts bums on seats.

And that’s one shiny double-edged sword for the current football scene to contend with. Every glimpse of the technicolour Dream Team reminds us of the enduring monochrome nightmare.

Subconsciously, subliminally, damningly, the interviews, the clips and the documentaries unwittingly reveal our ongoing failings.

In an insightful interview with FourFourTwo, the engaging Rafi Ali emphasised the irrelevance of race back in 1994, how skin tone and passport colour were less important then one’s talent. That irrelevance was underlined by the images of Lee Man Hon, David Lee, Steven Tan and Lim Tong Hai messing around with the impudent Malek Awab and court jester Fandi in the dressing room.

The Dream Team’s generation was arguably the last when race didn’t matter because all races played, together, on void decks, school playgrounds and professional pitches.

Today, almost 75 per cent of our population are willing – or allowed – to play until the end of secondary school. Then tertiary education takes precedence and the precocious talent withers.

In the documentary, Tong Hai spoke fondly of his favourite memories before and after training, with players hanging out at Jalan Besar coffee shops, bonding in ways more profound than anything achievable in a training session.

They became brothers because they were allowed to be. Lifelong friendships were forged organically, over time, in a way no longer possible for budding talents forever treading water in a sea of kiasusm, always threatening to be washed away at any moment.

Today, football is fitted in around the academic timetable, or it doesn’t fit at all. But for young, nascent stars like Rafi Ali and Lee Man Hon, football always came first. So when they were thrown in at the deep end in that definitive 1994 season, they started kicking. They were ready.

They were everything the under-23s were not at the recent South-east Asia Games. Lee Man Hon was scathing in his assessment of the Young Lions’ early exit on home soil. They were disorganised, tentative, overly cautious and reluctant to make the leap from boys to men.

How to brings the crowds back

Unlike the Dream Team, today’s footballers have everything they could possibly want from an affluent, first-world nation and very little that they actually need in the sporting arena. They are raised to pass exams, rather than the ball.

In the eternal balancing act between sport and studies, it’s not even a contest. So it’s rarely a contest on a football field.

Interestingly, the 1994 Lions were all happy to stage the reunion at their old Jalan Besar coffee stop, ignoring the sweat stains streaking across burgeoning bellies. They were not raised by an air-conditioned nation. There were no strawberries in the group. No one bruised easily. It wouldn’t have been tolerated.

As Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday, it’s worth remembering that the qualities that made the anniversary possible – independence, resilience and fortitude – also defined the Dream Team.

Winning athletes never leave home without them.

Victory is rarely born in a textbook. It’s incubated in sweaty Jalan Besar coffee shops. Talent without toil is as useful as a fish on a bicycle.

And people won’t watch it.

Rafi Ali pointed out that the Dream Team’s triumph – arguably the most significant sporting milestone in Singapore’s 50-year history – was achieved by the playing and coaching staff, the 50,000 Singaporean spectators and one or two million more watching at home.

The Melbourne Cup boasts of being the race that stops a nation. But in 1994, the Lions stopped a nation.

Watching the documentary is to watch a sporting nation embrace men of different colours and cultural backgrounds, locals and foreigners, united by the same jersey.

At the time, the Dream Team’s achievements, followed by the S.League’s launch in 1996, felt like the beginnings of a modern, symbiotic relationship between footballer and fan. Now the 4-0 scoreline reads as an epitaph.

When footballers’ voices drift across empty S.League stadiums, they echo like a death knell.

But the footage demonstrates that Singaporeans will return when there’s something worth watching; when political and sporting powers are finally ready to make the cultural and financial tweaks to give the game a fighting chance.

After all, the country always came out for the Dream Team.

When we were winners. When we were kings.