Only one thing wrong with Singapore football... Everything

Sacking Bernd Stange might satisfy some, but it doesn't solve deep-rooted problems in local football. Neil Humphreys examines where Singapore has gone wrong in recent years...

The lamentable state of Singapore football evokes surreal memories of that great scene in Airplane 2, where the stewardess announces that the plane is off course, the navigational instruments are smashed, asteroids are likely to kill them all and, worst of all, they’ve run out of coffee.

Cue mayhem.

Right now, that stewardess is standing at the front of a doomed aircraft and addressing each of Singapore’s perilous football problems… The Lions are 158th in the idiotic world rankings… Their manager appears to have won his job in a competition on the back of a cornflakes box… Singapore might be the only nation where supporters pledge their allegiance by wearing Manchester United and Liverpool jerseys and the S-League is whimpering against the dying of the light.

And, worst of all, the Lions lost to Malaysia.

Cue mayhem.

The Lions could find no way past their Causeway rivals on Saturday. Photo: Weixiang Lim

It’s hard not to compare Singapore today with Scotland in the late 1960s. The Scots were a hardy bunch against the English, but played like the Brady Bunch against just about everyone else. As the late Bobby Moore pointed out, Scotland’s worldview was such that as long as the Tartan Army were toppling the despised mob across the border, farcical defeats against abject opposition quickly faded from the memory.

READ ALSO Opinion: Bernd Stange – The wrong choice from the start

Singapore football is still afflicted by the same myopia. The domestic league may stand at the precipice as sponsors flock to Formula 1 and the odd tennis knock-up between pros turning up for a pre-Christmas bonus, but as long as the local heroes make a mess of Malaysia, all is right with the world.

So now all is wrong with the world, obviously. But then, is there anything particularly right about the current state of the country’s national sport? A quaint, kampong mentality continues to thwart the game’s progress in both cultural and economic terms.

Slinking back across the Causeway

The return to the Malaysian Super League was not a moment to savour but an admission of defeat, a desperate attempt to return to the kampong rivalries that pretty much died with the last of the kampongs.

Rather than acknowledge the systemic failings of the S-League and bring in new administrative and corporate blood to try and stop the hemorrhaging of both supporters and sponsors, the last few eggs were thrown into the MSL basket.

At a stroke, domestic football was written off as a basket case. The return to Malaysian football was a subconscious acceptance that the small island needed to be propped up by its Causeway rival. The umbilical cord had to be reattached to ancient history to save a dying future.

The move has clearly not worked.

LionsXII enjoy decent support at games, but at what cost for the S.League? Photo: Weixiang Lim

The S-League lost its best players and supporters to the MSL. Hardcore fan bases swapped their S.League jerseys for LionsXII tops. Rising S.League talents lost the chance to take on their elder, established statesmen in weekly battles. Singapore football was already weak. But the MSL left it fragmented, shattered by administrators who assumed that a cynical reconnection to the halcyon days of the Malaysia Cup would fan those flickering flames.

But this isn’t 1994. The Malaysia Cup preceded the Internet, cable television and dozens of live European games a week. A generation has grown up with their spiritual roots to the Beautiful Game fertilized by Messi and Ronaldo, rather than Fandi and Sundram. Frankly, the Malaysia Cup belongs to an era of tight shorts and Bananarama. It means nothing to many young Singaporeans now.

And yet, the archaic criteria used to measure football progress remains. Judging by the crowds that usually flock to Causeway contests, beating Malaysia can be all that matters. Just as a SEA Games gold medal can still be viewed as a sporting pinnacle rather than a stepping-stone to greater glory.

In areas of finance and education, Singapore trumpets its ability to punch above its weight on the global stage but appears content to remain a goldfish in an Asean football puddle.

The short-term hamster wheel

As a result, the focus is immediate, narrow and restrictive. Targets are short-term and parochial; the next SEA Games, the next Suzuki Cup and then the next SEA Games after that. Such an approach will invariably result in a predictable roller-coaster ride with fixed dimensions. A Suzuki Cup victory is suddenly followed by group stage failure. Triumph becomes despair so quickly because the puddle is so small. Managers come and go but the deeply entrenched cultural and societal failings that stifle football’s growth remain.

Gabriel Quak was the only Chinese player in Singapore's Suzuki Cup squad. Photo: Weixiang Lim

With a fixation on short-term goals, there is no root and branch reform, no strategy in place to address Singapore’s shortcomings over a generation, similar to the one adopted by the Germans after the Euro 2000 disaster. It was easy to mock at the time for its naïve optimism, but at least Singapore’s Goal 2010 project had a vision. There was a willingness to recognise where the country was going so desperately wrong.

Most of us already know and perhaps the inconvenient truth remains too unpalatable and politically sensitive to address. But let’s tick off the uncomfortable checklist to jog the memory.

  • With no guarantee of financial security in professional sport, the affluent Chinese will never consider football a viable career.
  • Cheering a nation in a jersey that celebrates a domestic club in Lancashire is a cultural problem unlikely to be fixed any time soon when a sports hub is built to attract Brazil and Japan for a mid-season kickabout.
  • When a smaller, vibrant, passionate section of Malaysian supporters, many of whom were wearing their actual national team colours rather than Arsenal’s away kit, make more noise than the home crowd, our sporting soul is in need of introspective analysis.
  • When a national stadium considers switching to astroturf – a final decision has yet to be made – to accommodate more Cantopop singers and One Direction’s backing band, its priorities deserve to be questioned.

The problems are easy. The solutions are hard. Sacking Bernd Stange is an option, but just another kneejerk reaction to the latest short-term failing; the most obvious deckchair to kick around on the Titanic.

It’s got to be all or nothing now. That’s widespread root and branch reform based on a generational strategy between the public and private sectors and driven by radical, invested stakeholders. 

We’ve already got nothing. So there really is nothing left to lose.

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.



Not to mention that that the army takes up a good 2 years of a footballers growth in some of the most important years of his development. And that only affects those that actually have persevered to that point.

The biggest problem, I feel, is that after their PSLE a lot of children face a difficult choice between football and their studies regardless of whether they are chinese or not as the 'top' schools in Singapore do not prioritise it at all. And in Singapore, we all know what the choice has to be. Therefore, a lot of the nation's more 'intelligent' children are not pursuing the sport as their schools do not allow for it.

Some may argue that the sports school has been the remedy. But I feel that although it does help to an extent, overall, all it does is train a handful of boys and demotivates the rest of the schools. I say this as seeing sports school absolutely dominate the competition only leads to the other schools putting their resources into other areas where they know they can compete. The sports school is a short cut by the government to try and produce a few quality players (which of course they will, but real progress will only be made when the quality of football increases as a whole), that in turn jeopardises the rest of the cohort's development because there is just 'not enough funding' for a large scale project.

1) Lions 12 should get out of the M league. Next, the players currently in the team should be equally divided amongst the teams in the S league as happened after we pulled out of the M league in 94. Also bring back Tanjong Pagar, Woolands Wellington and Gombak United. The S league should try to bring in the likes of big coperates like SIA, Singtel, Keppel, Jurong etc to sponsor the clubs and at same time the govt should also put in some money to each team. Let the teams have equal amount of funds.

2) The Young Lions should be disbanded. Give the weakest S league team of last season 1st pick on the most potential player from the young lions. Do it ala the American draft picks. These Young lions should be then given allowance by FAS so as to lower the financial burden of the local clubs. Let the players have equal allowances .Once they are enlisted to national service,the players should only be given allowances as per their national service ranking till their NS is completed like other normal national service men.Only after they have completed their NS can these boys sought for proper professional contracts with the clubs.

3) For those potential young players, when they are enlisted into national service, ensure that they serve their basic millitary training (BMT) stints during the off season. When they have completed their BMT, the potential ones that have been earmarked by their teams should be given time to train with their clubs. This mean putting these boys in a flexible national service vocation. For example, if teams have trainings in the morning, these boys should report to the club and after training should go back straight to their respective camps. On game day, they could work till noon and given the rest of the day off. The Warriors and Home Team should not be given the choice to pick these boys to play for them so as to level the competition.

4) Since the budget of the clubs aren't great, they can try to attract the better ASEAN players to ply their trade in the S league. Also teams can be allowed to have a total of 4 foreign players in the team. Ensure that in the substitute bench, at least there must be 1-2 18 yr old players included.

5) The FAS should have a clear direction on how they want the national team to play. If they want to play tiki-taka, it should be implemented across all national age group teams. Also make sure that the S league is run by someone who knows about football and not any minister or sorts.