Singapore football can’t afford a brain drain

With a small talent pool to begin with, the local game should work harder to stop the best and brightest from departing Singapore’s shores, argues Neil Humphreys...

One of Singapore’s leading football administrators has been tasked with turning the league into a regional powerhouse.

Unfortunately, it’s the Premier League of Thailand.

Benjamin Tan has swapped the Little Red Dot for the Land of Smiles, a country with a clear, focused agenda and ambitions beyond the regional bubble.

Tan’s job scope includes improving the league’s management to produce a more attractive product for potential advertisers.

The 39-year-old must also raise its administrative standards, i.e. the very qualities that are occasionally conspicuous by their absence in the S.League.

Tan, the Football Association of Singapore’s former deputy director of development and planning, has earned the opportunity to build the Thai brand, but the Singaporean’s move to a rival league reflects poorly on the local game.

Only Tan and the Thailand Football Association know the financial incentives and contract details behind his decision to become their Premier League’s deputy chief executive and director of club licensing. But the appointment can only be viewed as a PR own goal for local football.

Whenever a Singaporean lands a top job in the international workplace, there’s often a slightly jingoistic slant taken in the media coverage; local talent makes good on the global stage and so forth.

But Tan’s move is not a cause for celebration, but an untimely reminder of Singapore’s standing within the region and its perceived lack of ambition.

Thailand’s sly poaching of an effective football administrator isn’t Fandi Ahmad going to Groningen or even Hassan Sunny heading to Thailand to turn out for Army United, it’s an acknowledgement that the ceiling remains too low here for real game changers.

Hassan Sunny is one of Singapore's best but he is not playing in the domestic league

When Fandi went to Groningen, it was a chance to plant a Singapore flag in Europe, harness his raw talents and contribute positively for the national team, thanks to his interaction with superior teammates and opponents.

But Tan’s departure benefits only Thai football. The knock-on effects are more detrimental in the long-term, fuelling that entrenched stereotype in Singapore; i.e. if you display any sort of aptitude in a sporting capacity, you’ve got to leave the island to maximise your potential.

Tan’s resume certainly makes for impressive reading. From 2000 onwards he rose rapidly through the administrative ranks, first at the FAS and then the Asian Football Confederation, before rejoining the FAS for a second stint. But Thai FA president Somyot Pumpanmuang made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Tan spoke of the president’s “energy” and “drive”, favourable terms rarely associated with Singapore football in recent years, whereas the Thais are clearly going places.

Under national coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, Thailand have developed a discernible style built on youth and quick interplay. In September, they begin the final phase AFC qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

Thailand are leaving their SEA rivals behind

Their league, which began in 1996, the same year as the S.League, continues to take significant strides forward. Buriram United, Muangthong and Chonburi have all featured in the AFC Champions League.

Thailand also boasts a player who was recently named in the Daily Telegraph one of the world’s top 20 goalkeepers. The trouble is, he is also Singaporean. 

Hassan Sunny is now 32 and in the form of his life at Army United.

Ironically, when Hassan joined the National Football Academy in 2000, Thai maestros swaggered across S.League pitches. Before tiki taka, there was tom yam football.

Therdsak Chaiman, Kiatisuk Senamuang, Niweat Siriwong and Tawan Sripan turned their backs on the Asian financial crisis that had battered Bangkok and enjoyed the economic stability of Singapore instead.

The likes of Kiatisuk Senamuang used to light up the S.League. Photo: Kamthorn Pornsakulpaisal

Now the roles are reversed. Both domestically, internationally and increasingly administratively, Thai football continues to thrive at the expense of its neighbours, making the most of Senamuang’s progress and attracting whatever else is needed from stagnating leagues elsewhere.

The drive and energy that convinced Tan to head north to Thailand does exist locally, but it’s mostly propelled from within.

Despite the stories concerning their financial predicament, Tampines Rovers’ determination to resurrect a dying league deserves recognition.

Whether they can hang on to Jermaine Pennant and the sizeable group of former LionsXII stars in the transfer window remains to be seen. But they fuelled the renaissance at the start of the season, which is just about being sustained.

Jermaine Pennant has helped revive the league, albeit slightly. Photo: Weixiang Lim / FFT

The Pennant transfer, whatever its eventual outcome, was always intended to be a quick fix, a noble effort to kick-start a sputtering engine in the hope that other signings, sponsors and initiatives followed.

It isn’t the role of Tampines chairman Krishna Ramachandra to singlehandedly revive Singapore’s national sport. That responsibility rests with proven men like Benjamin Tan.

He must design a blueprint, both for the league and individual clubs, to make them economically viable and build a self-sustaining national game.

The problem is, he’s doing it for Thailand, like an interior designer who’s left his rickety home and nipped across the road to turn the neighbour’s property into a palace.

Meanwhile, the FAS has yet to decide on a new Lions manager, a new president, or even the constitutional changes required to elect a new president.

But Thailand appears to know exactly where it’s going and now has a Singaporean leading the way, which is a worrying precedent for the S.League.

Professional football will always be a borderless industry, but Singapore’s talent pool is just too small to accommodate a brain drain.

Main Photo: FAS