S.League should think smaller, not bigger

At a J.League game in Tokyo, Neil Humphreys was pleasantly surprised by how a team tried its best to engage with the fans and believes that the S.League could learn a thing or two...

At Bedok Stadium recently, the Albirex Niigata (S) players stood out among the rest. It wasn’t the first teamers, but the substitutes. They warmed up, continuously, from first minute to last.

While Geylang International’s bench warmers mostly did just that, warm the bench, the Japanese youngsters jogged, stretched and followed orders from their trainer.

Two weeks later, the Japanese substitutes were at it again, only in Japan.

Watching from the press box, the imagery was surreal in its familiarity.

Framed by the spring cherry blossoms around Machida Athletic Stadium on the outskirts of rural Tokyo, FC Machida Zelvia’s second stringers ran the same drills, stretched the same hamstrings and followed the same orders.

In Tokyo’s spring sunshine, Machida mimicked their countrymen in Singapore.

Such an obsessive attention to detail separates the J.League from the S.League. The need to find an edge, an advantage or even a slight opening that may prove beneficial down the track defines Japanese football, both on and off the field.

The J.League offered a timely reminder of all that the S.League still needs to do. It’s an established template that could easily be replicated in Singapore with a few simple, inexpensive tweaks.

Interaction with the fans cannot be neglected anymore. Photo: Amber Teo / FFT

Put simply, Singapore football should think smaller rather than bigger.

A tiny island long obsessed with large ambitions to perhaps overcompensate (No.1 airport, No.1 maths syllabus, No.1 nation for pointless Guinness World Records and so forth) , the kiasu tendencies has seen the nation so often seek to run before it could walk.

For example, Singapore couldn’t get anywhere near Asian Cup qualification in the 1990s so, naturally, the country launched the Goal 2010 project to qualify for the World Cup instead.  And there are those five-year targets, rarely met, but constantly revised and relaunched.

It had to be grandiose. It had to grab headlines. It had to be now.

Japanese football, on the other hand, has a 100-year plan.

That’s probably all you need to know about the differing football objectives.

Japan prioritises the small stuff, the less eye-catching stuff, the stuff that builds a football identity, club by club, community by community.

Albirex Niigata are noted for their life-sized banners of every player outside Jurong East Stadium on match-days. It’s an anomaly in the S.League. It’s the norm in the J.League.

The first, striking image that greets spectators stepping off the bus outside Machida’s home ground are the life-sized banners. Youngsters pose proudly beside their favourite players, scuffed balls tucked under their arms.

Machida banners can be spotted around the grounds. Photo: Neil Humphreys

And Machida are not Urawa Reds, but a recently-promoted J2 side. Their average attendance would not have been out of place at a Home-SAFFC match in the late 1990s. The crowd at the Machida-Consadole Sapporo game was 7,146.

As recently as 2011, the Machida stadium’s capacity was 6,200, but the club continues to improve the ground as it enjoys year on year attendance increases. This is no fluke, but another example of that obsessive attention to detail, taking incremental steps in the right direction, rather than a scattergun approach.

Every home game includes an all-day carnival.

A country raised on baseball likes a sporting event rather than a short 90-minute spectacle. Bouncy castles, face painting, competitions, temporary bars and enough food stalls to rival a pasar malam are present at every J.League game, across the divisions.

Before the Machida match, the carnival area was filled with families hours before the game.

In the early days of the J.League, the community came for the carnival. Over time, they stayed for the football. A connection was established between footballer and fan, a kind of unofficial contract was signed, in some cases literally.

Even a small community club gets a sponsor on the team bus. Photo: Neil Humphreys

Players not included in the squad are still expected to serve by conducting autograph sessions at the match-day carnivals. They also hand out competition prizes. It’s as much a part of their weekly duties as training sessions.

School visits and coaching clinics are not random, ad-hoc exercises, but a regular and necessary feature of a club’s marketing strategy, a sincere and long-term bonding effort with the community.

Like Singapore, the J.League remains a national project in a proud Asian country not keen on losing face, but the immediate goals remain deceptively small, but pivotal. Reach the community. Capture a new fan. Get his family. Then go for his neighbours. Focus on piecemeal growth. Lift attendances. Improve stadiums. Repeat.

In some aspects, Machida’s job is easier. Known as the “Brazil of Tokyo”, the game’s popularity is well known and its academy has churned out a number of J.League players. But Machida is no different to any other Japanese community. It’s always up against baseball and sumo wrestling.

Football remains top dog in Singapore. In theory, there are fewer hurdles to overcome when chasing the sporting entertainment dollar.

S.League clubs do engage with their respective communities and pre-match entertainment has noticeably improved in the Jermaine Pennant era, but the club that comes closest to emulating the Japanese is still the Japanese club.

It’s no coincidence that Albirex recently signed a fourth memorandum of understanding with the Yuhua Community Club, pledging to donate $1 to Yuhua CSC for every fan who attends the league leaders’ home games.

Humphreys soaking in the atmosphere. Photo: Neil Humphreys

It’s also no coincidence that few Machida supporters, or J.League fans in general, are aware of Albirex’s progress in the S.League. Even fewer care.

That’s the point. The Japanese are preoccupied with their own team, their own community, their own league. They were invited to take ownership of their local clubs and, over time, they accepted.

It’s a lazy, trite argument to dismiss the J.League’s success as a product of their superior population size. When the economic crisis hit in 1997, the J.League almost buckled.

Attendances dropped. Sponsors fled. Clubs tiptoed towards bankruptcy in a grim scenario not unfamiliar with long-suffering S.League supporters. So they turned away from the big-name policy that had reeled in the likes of Zico and Gary Lineker and looked closer to home.

Clubs were encouraged to return to their communities and start from scratch. Set up the carnivals. Engage with local businesses. Form regional partnerships. Establish local academies and supporters groups. Cultivate the communities and, most of all, be patient.

There’s no reason, none at all, why Singapore cannot do the former, as long as they can pull off the latter. Be patient.

Forget the grand plans and unrealistic World Cup goals for now and just concentrate on getting bums on seats.

At the end of the the Machida-Sapporo game, which ended in a 2-0 victory for the hosts, the players of both sides mingled with fans, posing for photos and bowing in gratitude, emphasising that umbilical cord once more.

Albirex players do the same here.

Like their substitutes jogging and stretching beside the running track for a full 90 minutes, it’s always the little things.

And from little things, big leagues grow.

Main Photo: Amber Teo / FFT