The LionsXII need you – Why Singapore football fails without fans

With the LionsXII still searching for their second Malaysia Super League win this season, Neil Humphreys explains why the supporters cannot always complain. They must stand up and be counted.

English reserve football has always attracted strange supporters. When I was kid, I could only afford reserve fixtures at Upton Park. The football was wretched, but the mad fans were wonderful.

They never missed a game. No matter how many times an incompetent Hammer with a beer gut and no ball control kept falling over, they kept coming back. There were bitchy pensioners, wide-eyed kids and those obsessed statisticians who knew the result of every West Ham fixture since 1966, but had never kissed a woman before.

Nothing could keep them away. It wasn’t the paltry fare served up by has-beens, wannabes and never-gonna-bes, it was an inexplicable devotion to those men in uniform. For good and mostly bad, West Ham had seeped into the soul. Once it sticks, it’s almost impossible to remove, a bit like dried dog shit on a shoe.

Some of those fans must still attend West Ham reserve games; moaning about the rain and watching Carlton Cole fall over. But they’ll still be there. Just as they were there at an AFC Champions League match in Myanmar earlier this week (I’m talking about fans in general now, not West Ham supporters specifically. They’re not that keen).

As you do in Myanmar

The success of Warriors FC against Yadanarbon stood out less than the attendance. A raucous crowd of 21,400 turned out to watch the Myanmar National League champions. Yadanarbon lost, but their huge turnout brought Singapore’s lack of support into sharp focus.

Everyone knows the excuse. The longstanding justification for Singapore’s indifference towards its national game has been a lack of standard. Local football has “got no standard”. The S.League is inferior, the Lions cannot beat Malaysia at home and a bunch of mostly untested kids will probably struggle in the Malaysian Super League. So why bother?

It’s a copout. Yadanarbon blew that myopic argument out of the water 21,400 times over. They came for the club colours, not the quality. In an ideal world, both are included with the price of admission. Season tickets come gift-wrapped with the promise of frilly football and shiny silver pots.

That’s a reality only for the privileged few at the Bernabéu and the Allianz Arena (and those clinging to their bandwagons). For the average Yadanarbon or West Ham fan, total football is a distant fantasy. Dreams are dashed almost weekly, but the support rarely wavers.

That doesn’t mean Singapore football gets a free pass to produce plodding performances indefinitely. But to write off the local game for failing to reach unrealistic standards smacks of the shortsighted kiasuism that Dr Ben Tan alluded to in his recent parliamentary speech on the worrying state of sport.

More than ever, Singapore football needs the benefit of the doubt. Since the Suzuki Cup debacle, the fans’ voices have been heard across all media platforms and rightly so. Now they should be heard at Jalan Besar in the MSL.

This season feels like a watershed for Singapore football. The local game’s position remains precarious, its future uncertain. While the bedraggled Lions rebuild from scratch and the S.League struggles to win back public trust, Fandi Ahmad must send fresh faces to save the nation’s face with a top-three finish in the MSL.

Bums on seats

After almost flat-lining last season, a pulse remains, but it’s a faint one. The FAS’ $25 million, six-year deal with media rights company MP & Silva is more than a cash injection. It’s a defibrillator. The game suddenly has a lifeline.

But the deal also presents a football nation with an intriguing dilemma. MP & Silva has pledged to organise up to six games every year, involving leading international and club sides, as well as the Singapore national team. I added the “as well”.  But there must be a risk that the Lions become an afterthought, the ball and chain that a major media rights company must lug around if it wants to do big business here, like a kind of corporate National Service.

Book a Lions friendly and pay lip service to football’s local development and then book a Liverpool friendly to pay the bills. That will be the cynical thinking if Europe’s heavyweights play to packed houses and the Lions are left to make up the numbers on the National Stadium’s events calendar.

There’s no suggestion that MP & Silva isn’t fully committed to promoting Singapore’s football squads, but it’s not a charity either. If Singaporeans do not stand up for their countrymen but are willing to stand up for the Catalans, then the talent will be imported from Barcelona rather than Balestier. Professional sport is about putting bums on seats.

So MP & Silva and the National Stadium will offer Singaporeans a choice: back one of the big boys or back one of your own. Follow the passport or follow the money.

But is there not a third, simpler option of perhaps doing both? The LionsXII do not depend on every Singapore-based Manchester United supporter for their longevity, just a decent percentage will do.

The biggest threat to a football competition’s health has never been a lack of quality. It’s apathy. The local game undoubtedly needs greater investment, less kiasuism, more Chinese participants and improved infrastructure.

But right now, it just needs you.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. He has also penned recent bestseller Marina Bay Sins. You can find his website right here.