Singapore football needs criticism, not cover-ups

Burying the negative is the worst thing to do, writes Neil Humphreys, as Singapore football looks for answers after an utterly disappointing year...

The fear and loathing that currently exists within Singapore football reminds me of my old Toa Payoh landlord. A wonderfully eccentric uncle, he often regaled me with kampong tales at a coffee shop. The line between fact and fiction was always blurred, which only added to each story’s value.

But if he mentioned Mr Lee Kuan Yew, his demeanor immediately changed. He spoke in hushed tones and cupped a hand and blocked his mouth, perhaps assuming Internal Security Department officers sat at the next table.

When his squirrely behaviour was questioned, his response was always the same. You never know.

Well, quite. Who knows when the Singapore Cabinet might pop into a Toa Payoh coffee shop for a teh tarik.

"Sure kena whack, boss."

Such sentiments have followed me in recent weeks (and other writers, along with professional footballers, past and present). A gentle line of interrogation, a paternal hand on the arm, a rueful nod, a private Facebook message or a worried text, the concerned questions and queries came quickly. Did anyone contact me? Had I been spoken to? Had there been any retribution? It all got a bit Dostoyevsky. Punishment was imminent. As a friend pointed out, “Sure kena whack, boss.”

Singapore fans vent their frustrations at the referee moments after elimination

The dubious crime was to suggest in a previous FourFourTwo column that all was not well in the world of Singapore football. The piece was hardly Nostradamus foresight mixed with a soupcon of Confucian wisdom. The Lions bowed out of the Suzuki Cup with a playing style that wasn’t so much tiki-taka as it was topsy-turvy. The pitch had more holes than Singapore’s formation and there was a failure to communicate between the manager and his muddled men. Carrier pigeons get their messages across quicker.

The column was guilty only of stating the bleeding obvious.

But the anxiety was palpable. There remains a deeply entrenched perception that if an invisible line is crossed, if the status quo is somehow held up for examination, there will be consequences. Saying Singapore football was really bad when it was, in fact, really bad, could be really bad for me. (Similar concerns surfaced when my novel Match Fixer was published. It was suggested to me on more than one occasion that by highlighting Singapore’s terrible match-fixing culture, it could be really terrible: not for the match fixers, but for me. The logic felt strangely flawed)

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And here we are again. A friend within the football industry is eager to share an insider’s perspective of Singapore’s flat-lining sports culture and give a unique take on the current malaise that permeates our national game but fears never being able to work again.

The fans turned up, but what about the football?

To draw upon the bleeding obvious once more, such thinking is outdated and unhelpful and shown to be wonderfully irrelevant in recent weeks. If one glorious positive can be taken from the National Stadium pitch fiasco and the demoralizing early exit from the Suzuki Cup, it’s that the people’s game lived up to its billing.

The people stepped forward, in their hundreds, their thousands and even their tens of thousands to be heard. All right, they weren’t marching along the Kallang River waving placards, brandishing pitchforks and building obstacles and diversions. We’ve got the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon for that (I’ll be here all week).

Fans packed out the National Stadium for the Causeway Derby

But their indignation would not be silenced. On social media, they made a mockery of the tired assumption that Singaporeans are a fair-weather bunch of bandwagon jumpers, bored easily by local football’s paupers and interested only in the Premier League’s princes. That was always the stick to beat down dissent in the past. Singaporeans are fickle followers, difficult to win over and impossible to please. So don’t hate the players. Don’t hate the game. Hate yourselves. You’re the problem. You’re the reason why local football is failing.

The Suzuki Cup proved otherwise. Singaporeans packed the National Stadium. Thousands more watched on TV or followed on websites like this one. Stories on the tournament attracted far greater online traffic than the latest Premier League news. To plagiarize Field of Dreams, Singapore built it. And they came. But the spectacle was substandard, not the support.

So Singaporeans vented. But the criticism was often constructive. The kneejerk reaction was to demand the usual coaching and administrative heads on spikes, but the forum letters and blog posts swiftly moved in. The Suzuki Cup debacle sparked a national conversation, the likes of which Singapore football hadn’t seen for years. Such a debate shouldn’t be downplayed. It should be celebrated.

Plenty of questions but few answers

Singaporeans still care about the local state of play, offering practical feedback and demanding answers to difficult, but fair questions. Such as, how do we sustain a fan base in a small country? Can an S.League ever nurture hardcore community support in an ever-changing housing landscape? What must be done to make Chinese parents put sporting achievement ahead of textbook kiasuism? Should the S.League ever have an age cap on talent and why can’t players be paid all-year round? Who can make up the shortfall to encourage others to participate in professional sport? Why has the FAS failed to achieve pretty much all of its six goals in its Strategic Plan for 2010-2015 after five years?

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The overriding target of that plan was to see Singapore join the top 10 football nations in Asia by 2015. That’s a month away. The Lions are not even close.

Once the dust settled, the spontaneous and sincere debate about the national game went beyond the search for scapegoats and towards salvaging what’s left of a country’s sporting soul.

Singapore’s footballers might have lost their footing during the Suzuki Cup, but Singapore’s fans found their voice. They must be championed not chastised.

It should never be a crime to care.

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo

'Marina Bay Sins' by Neil Humphreys is now available for download on iTunes for all your iOS devices.