While the Lions are defying the odds and delivering on their Asian Cup promise, they need and deserve a packed stadium, argues Neil Humphreys
The grass was literally greener. The air was still, but fresh. The haze had temporarily dissipated. Bernd Stange opted for a soak-and-surge strategy and the Lions delivered. They were rather lucky, but triumphant nonetheless.
The stage was set for a memorable night, but the stage was mostly empty. Unlike match winner Khairul Amri, the fans didn’t turn up.
Singapore’s Lions held out for a fortuitous 1-0 win against Afghanistan in a joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifier in a mostly silent National Stadium.
An inspiring result was rewarded with an insipid atmosphere. The official attendance was 7,128, which confused the eye. Perhaps there were corporate and complimentary no-shows. Perhaps the 7,128 were lost in the cavernous arena, scattered across the stands like displaced ants in search of a colony.
But the committed followers who did show cheered in a vacuum, the sound of their clappers and drums drifting away from the banks of empty seats like a vanishing balloon. They deserved better. So did the players.
The dream of reaching the 2019 Asian Cup is still on. The Lions are third in Group E with a respectable seven points from four matches. Cambodia are up next at the National Stadium. Bottom of the group, winless and pointless, Cambodia will fear the opponents, but not the venue.
Silence is golden for a visiting team. Silence doesn’t intimidate opponents, but can unsettle the home nation.
Against Afghanistan, the Lions overcame a muted atmosphere and an exceedingly cautious tactical ploy to prevail, thanks to the redoubtable Khairul.
But a stadium filled only with tumbleweed puts those who champion the local game, those willing to challenge perceived inadequacies among the status quo, in an invidious position.
Put simply, how can you criticise if you don’t come to see the product? A justifiably angry voice loses volume if it’s an absent voice. An obvious position of strength soon becomes one of weakness.
Like the boy who cried wolf, if those who lament the state of the local game fail to show when times are good, why should they be listened to if and when the football falters? They become, in effect, the flaw in their own argument.
The easy retort that we are fair-weather fans gripped by an “always complain” culture echoed loudly at the near deserted National Stadium.
The Lions are currently winning. The facilities are now world class. The playing surface was near perfect, the weather was cool and the admission prices to see the national team in a World Cup qualifier were more than reasonable.
But of course it’s easy to criticise. More than that, it can be beneficial. From a columnist’s perspective, mocking the incompetence of local football’s administration, when it’s warranted, is shooting fish in a barrel. Critical stories concerning the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) are the Kim Kardashian of digital media, easy click-bait. They guarantee hits and shares.
But they soon become shrill and hypocritical if they are not counterbalanced by objective analysis of a job well done. Everyone connected with the Singapore Sports Hub and the FAS delivered and the World Cup qualifier was generously promoted in the media.
On this occasion, both organisers and players stepped up. But the fans still mostly stayed away.
Compare the funereal experience at Kallang to the frenetic, rip-roaring scenes witnessed last month in Bangkok. The 12th man didn’t just show up at the Rajamangala National Stadium. Almost 45,000 of them did, hoisting the team upon their bouncing shoulders and carrying them to a come-from-behind 2-2 draw against Iraq. The Thais on the terraces practically blew the ball into the net.
That’s what the Lions need against Cambodia next week. That’s what local football needs for reasons beyond the obvious.
As a society, Singapore loves to self-flagellate at the best of times, whipping itself into submission for perceived shortcomings. But the persistent belief that the country is one of shiny sports infrastructure rather than a deep-rooted sports culture gains credence when a vital World Cup qualifier can’t attract a crowd.
Turning up to catch a glimpse of Neymar mess around in a glorified training session against Japan makes for a fun night out, but it’s indicative of a celebrity culture rather than a sporting one. And there are always repercussions.
The Singapore Sports Hub’s pockets are not bottomless. Decision-makers with an eye on the balance sheet are not renowned for their patience. Few national sports stadia pay their own way, but empty stands rarely inspire confidence or investment. If the fans only show for Brazil, Japan and pre-season English Premier League friendlies, then that’s what they’ll get.
But the Lions should not be cast off to the Jalan Besar wilderness.
No national side has a divine right to a full house of course. Support is rarely unconditional and must be earned. But the Lions are slowly working their way back. They are winning games. The hearts and minds come later.
But maybe they could start by coming out for the Cambodia game.
If frustrated voices want to be heard when they’re losing, then they must sing when they’re winning.
Tickets to all of Singapore's huge upcoming World Cup qualifiers, including the clashes with Cambodia, Japan and Syria, are now on sale. Get yours from Sports Hub Tix, by calling the hotline at +65 6333 5000/+65 3158 7888, by visiting the Singapore Indoor Stadium box office or dropping into any SingPost outlet islandwide.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo