Singapore fans should not be taken for granted

Whether it's an S.League club or the national side, football teams have no right to expect unswerving support, argues Neil Humphreys.

There must be highs with the lows. If there are no highs, then it moves beyond fandom and into masochism

- Neil Humphreys

Like so many taxi drivers, my one had just about had it with local football. He savaged the shoddy infrastructure. He mocked the administrators and ridiculed the bureaucrats mismanaging the domestic league. He longed for the good old days, when the football was better and the names familiar.

He had fallen out of love with local football.

My taxi driver was Brazilian.

We were passing a Rio favela, with the imposing Christ the Redeemer statue high to our right. The driver was taking me to the Maracana Stadium for the World Cup Final, expressing his admiration for Germany’s efficiency, organisation and coaching structure.

He struggled with the demise of the Brazilian game. He couldn’t even say Fred’s name. The much-maligned striker made the cabbie break out in a rash.

If one photo summed up Fred's World Cup...

So let’s strip back an unfair stigma at the outset. Singapore isn’t special. Like most football nations, the island has its share of fickle, fair weather fans. When the Lions are flying in the AFF Suzuki Cup, the stands are often full. When the Lions are being outplayed by Guam, Singaporeans stay away.

Kiasuism may be a uniquely Singaporean term, but the behaviour isn’t. Attendances rise and fall, usually in direct correlation with performances on the pitch. When Yannick Bolasie completed his 11-minute hat-trick for Crystal Palace at the Stadium of Light last weekend, Sunderland fans voted with their feet. Seats emptied with half an hour still to play.

Indeed the rise of the fan’s protest has been one of the more uplifting developments in the English Premier League. As clubs continued to put greed before glory, herding their long-suffering sheep into pens before fleecing them, the sheep started bleating.

The protests were small, and not particularly successful, but Sunderland, Newcastle United, West Ham, Manchester United, Rangers and even the English Football Association have all felt the wrath of the disillusioned.

The baby steps were small, but there was a tentative march towards greater recognition nonetheless. The fans still matter.

No one is more aware of this fact than SEA Games Organising Committee exco chairman Lim Teck Yin. Earlier this week he urged real fans to “step up”.

Speaking in The Straits Times, he said: “For a fan to say ‘you perform then I come’, it’s sort of saying you’re not quite a fan. Fans are there for the highs and lows - they lift the team when they are low.”

Will the next generation of supporters be tempted to support a losing cause? Photo: Weixiang Lim

That’s mostly true in a developed sports culture, which Singapore is still working towards, but the assumption comes with one colossal caveat. There must be highs with the lows. If there are no highs, then it moves beyond fandom and into masochism.

Even in our monsoonal climate, the rain season still needs the odd rainbow.

Four months into the year, Singapore’s national sides all remain winless in 2015. With the SEA Games two months away, the Young Lions are reeling from a Japanese mauling and dispiriting losses against Syria and Cambodia. Of course, poor Aide Iskandar and his youngsters welcome all the support they can get.

But the idea that a national flag or a club badge is enough in itself, that one’s support must be devoted, absolute and unconditional is unfair and unhelpful.

To make a strange, but relevant, comparison between arts and sport, Singaporean DJ Glenn Ong and actor/producer Nicholas Lee recently disputed the quality of a local TV show. Aside from the public spat, the underlying issue was a pertinent one. Should something be supported and championed simply because it’s Singaporean? If a performance of any description is stamped “local”, is it automatically granted amnesty from public criticism?

The argument is tricky because it neuters the audience’s opinion. Whenever a creaky Singaporean TV show is aired or one of the national sides delivers a sub-par performance, any condemnation can be swatted away, with culpable parties waving their ICs in the air and shouting “diplomatic immunity” like Joss Ackland in Lethal Weapon 2.

Singapore's national teams are still winless in 2015. Photo: Weixiang Lim

Support for Singapore’s teams might be expected, but it should never be assumed. Indeed, football authorities shouldn’t want their fans to be taken for granted.

Supporters who endlessly bang plastic inflatables and celebrate a perpetual cycle of defeat and despair are, in the end, not real supporters, but drones. One ends up serving the other. If a team’s mediocrity is matched by equally low expectations in the stands, then it becomes a race to the bottom.

It’s no longer the pursuit of excellence, but a test of one’s patriotism.

Sharing a passport with the 11 men running out at Jalan Besar ties footballers and fans together with a cultural umbilical cord. But it’s not a Kevlar vest.

Real supporters complain. They bitch. They moan. They call for players to be dropped and managers sacked. In their dreams, they win trophies. In reality, they expect progress. That’s all. That’s fair. That’s a healthy, sustainable relationship, indicative of a sports culture with deep roots.

Whether the taxi driver comes from Brazil or Bishan, the same rules apply. A supporter’s long-term commitment must be earned.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. His newest book, Marina Bay Sins, is out in stores now. You can find his website right here.