Friendlies are a time to experiment with players and formations, but too many defeats are a risky business. The Lions do not have the public goodwill to keep losing to minnows, argues Neil Humphreys...
Defeats matter. In the business of professional sport, they always matter.
Pre-season friendlies, exhibitions, clumsy nights in Cambodia and embarrassing trips to Japanese universities, they all carry weight. They resonate. They are remembered.
At Manchester United, Mourinho watched the horror show against Borussia Dortmund and issued a plea for Paul Pogba’s signature at any cost, happy to kick out nine other squad members to balance the books.
For managers of Mourinho’s stature, friendlies are workshops, a chance to brainstorm with new faces and formations. Victories aren’t always essential. But for managers like Sundram, the margin for error is too small.
Singapore’s national coach insisted he learned plenty from the recent friendlies in Cambodia and Japan, but he probably also realised that a weary nation’s pain threshold is perilously low.
Too many defeats, too often, tests the patience of an apathetic general public. Singapore’s ever decreasing pool of Lions followers need little excuse to bow out.
The defeat against the students of Niigata University of Health and Welfare – a team name that tiptoes towards parody – would feel like a just cause.
Last week’s loss to Cambodia, the first since 1972, was icing on the cynic’s cake.
It must be remembered that this isn’t about the diehards, those glorious zealots who turn up come rain, shine or yet another dispiriting defeat.
It’s about the casual observers, the floating voters who drift in and out of the football landscape, popping up when the Lions roar towards another Suzuki Cup triumph or Jermaine Pennant swaggers into Tampines, but return to the wilderness the moment Singapore lose to a Cambodian side ranked 180th in the world.
These defeats provide get-out clauses, a legitimate excuse to give up on the local game whilst avoiding accusations of being unpatriotic or, even worse, a fickle bandwagon jumper ready to desert at the first opportunity.
The case for defection looks watertight when their countrymen fail to beat the Niigata University of Health and Welfare (that name is so farcical, it warranted a second mention.)
Rational counter-arguments fall on deaf ears. They were only friendlies? Sundram experimented with untested youngsters? Singapore missed Shahril Ishak, Safuwan Baharudin, Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khaizan and Hassan Sunny against Cambodia? Who cares?
The defeats pander to the prejudices of every jaded taxi driver, officer worker and golf-loving CEO across the country.
We’re Singapore. We suck. There’s nothing to see here.
This is the stubborn, societal reality that the game’s administrators and power brokers continue to ignore, to the detriment of the national game.
Every country has armchair critics and keyboard warriors, but Singapore cannot afford to alienate them further because the hardcore fanbase is so much smaller to begin with.
Not only does Singapore lack the obvious population advantages of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, football nations that are catching, or already passing, the Little Red Dot, their rivals also have a psychological edge.
In the wake of the Cambodia defeat, disillusioned supporters took to social media to lambast the Lions with a single word.
The Lions lacked pride.
The Cambodians played with pride and the students of the Niigata University of Health and Welfare certainly played with pride.
But today’s pampered Lions, unlike the hungrier Lions in their Malaysia Cup-winning pomp, suffer from an apparent pride deficit.
It’s a common complaint in the modern game, a cultural offshoot of the rich-poor divide between the average footballer and fan, the price often paid for an affluent society.
England suffers most of course in this regard. Those pampered, preening multi-millionaires, with their plump hotel pillows, couldn't even beat the Icelandic hordes who leapt from their Viking longboats to behead the frilly English dandies.
Neither cliché particularly holds, but the vitriolic reaction underlines the misperception that these spoilt brats no longer play with the same pride.
It’s a familiar refrain in Singapore. The Lions lost matches throughout the 1970s and 1980s and, apart from the odd exception, never got any closer to World Cup qualification, but they were rarely accused of lacking pride.
They were hungrier, grittier and tougher. They were also poorer. The rich-poor divide was narrower so the degree of forgiveness was wider.
Defeats, even friendly defeats, give sceptics a chance to turn away from a sport that is already struggling to sustain interest
Intriguingly, on Facebook, fans have pointed fingers at Sundram and even the Government, a common knee-jerk reaction in Singapore, but one that hints at that grating flaw deep within the national psyche.
Unlike its regional neighbours, Singapore is not an island of producers. From kindergarten onwards, Singaporeans are frequently reminded that they couldn’t survive without imports and foreign talent, planting a seed of inferiority (which soon eats away at that ‘pride’ of course).
Anything of any real quality must come from overseas. The history books say so. Sundram is local. The Lions are local. How could they possibly be any good? They can’t even beat a Japanese university side and the former whipping boys from Cambodia.
The rise of such uncertainty invariably leads to the fall of pride.
Defeats, even friendly defeats, feed the paranoia and give sceptics a chance to turn away from a sport that is already struggling to sustain interest.
Football losses hurt every nation, in any context. But in Singapore’s case, they present a much greater risk.
Cynics are always looking for an excuse to bail out on local football and switch back to the English Premier League without that nagging sense of guilt.
Defeats against Cambodia make it really easy for them.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FFT