Time for Singapore to come ‘home'

Dez Corkhill, Managing Editor of Astro Arena, argues that heading north is the best way to reinvigorate the Singaporean football scene...

Club football in Singapore is making the headlines for once. Nope, it’s not because Warriors won the Great-Eastern/Yeo’s S.League in a truly compelling conclusion to the season, where the league title’s destination was only decided on the last day of the season.

And it’s not the tale of Balestier Khalsa winning the RHB Singapore Cup for the first time, or even the plaudits for Aleksander Duric calling time on a remarkable career.

No, for local football to really make the headlines in Singapore, you need a bad pitch in a billion dollar stadium, pole dancers at their end of season awards, and – after calls from all parties for radical changes – dismay when those plans are put in place.

The S.League is dying, whether you like it or not. The solution? Go back in time and reintroduce a competitive Singaporean side back to Malaysian football, and turn the domestic S.League back to being a strong semi-professional league and living within its means. Hear me out.

The problems with the S.League

Critics in Singapore describe the Malaysia Super league as a “kampung” league. Two responses: 1) It is not. 2) Even if it were, it’s a league that’s exciting, energizing, brings crowds to the stadia, ignites interest in the Malaysia States and – guess what? – entertains people. TV viewing figures and huge crowds the length and breadth of the country attest to that.

The inscription on the great Bill Shankly’s statue outside Anfield says: “He made the people happy”. Isn’t that what sport – football in particular – is primarily supposed to do – entertain the people and unite a community?

Credit: Stuart Frisby

I have a connection to football in Singapore. Back in 2003-04, Geylang United (now known as Geylang International) coach Scott O’Donell gave me a minor role behind the scenes working with Shahri Rahim and a young Hassan Sunny. In later years in my real job in broadcasting, I tried to promote the S.League by contributing to and producing TV programmes about it with ESPN STAR Sports. Then, I was given an opportunity to be interviewed as an outside candidate for the role of CEO of the S.League.

I pondered long and hard about what needed addressing. My conclusions back then were:

  • Only Albirex Niigata Singapore tried to belong to, or matter to, a community;
  • The spectator viewing experience was truly awful;
  • And the clubs were living beyond their means because there was no way that Singapore could support as many as 10 professional clubs.

It has always been a bone of contention that the local league is so far down the list of priorities of the local population. The league itself is a very decent standard, and virtually every year it has gone – like this season – down to the last day of the season to decide the champions. It’s a good league deserving better support, but are the teams ever really relevant to their communities?

The elephant in the room is that club football is perceived as being a very Malay and Indian pastime, and of little interest to the majority 75% Chinese population.

But look at the amateur league scene. The amateur ESPZEN League alone has six Saturday divisions and eight Sunday divisions, plus midweek, veteran and women’s leagues. That’s up to 200 teams with Chinese players making up the majority of the participants. And the local futsal pitches are always full to brimming. Paul Masefield’s Premier Pitch initiative spawned a huge boom of participation in futsal and numerous imitation pitches. So, the interest in football even in the supposedly disinterested Chinese majority is there.

The biggest problem to my eyes is that few – if any – clubs in Singapore truly matter to the community they purport to represent. Most don’t even play in the community they purport to represent. Guess which geographical area of Singapore do Geylang play their home games? You’d think the bustling Geylang. Wrong. How about Balestier? Or Tanjong Pagar United? Or Tampines Rovers? None play in the heartland area that they take their names from. And most play in borrowed stadiums surrounded by running tracks that make for a dreadful viewing experience. At Geylang (who play in Bedok), if you watch from the main stand, you are, at best, 40m away from the near touchline.

Regardless of the quality of the game you’re watching, unless the match is taking place at Jalan Besar or Jurong East, your match day viewing experience will be horrible. It’s a basic ingredient to make the spectator feel wanted and valued. Can any of the local S.League clubs barred Albirex truly say they do?

Clubs used to matter to their community. Jurong FC often played to raucous full houses at the cracking Jurong East facility. And I used to catch Woodlands Wellington games with strong crowds generating a crackling atmosphere. However, by the time we reached year 2012, something quite fundamental had changed.

Jurong were long lost, while Woodlands – who will join forces with Hougang United for the 2015 season – were in the doldrums. And the lack of the community mattering to the clubs was summed up when Tampines Rovers were forced to give up Tampines Stadium for re-development purposes, and either chose or were told to play their home games in Clementi. That’s on the other side of the island! If I’m living in Tampines and want to follow the team, the only game local to me is when we play Geylang in Bedok. And even that might be played at Jalan Besar. See the problem here?

Some clubs have tried to engage the community by doing some out-reach work and coaching at schools and other community minded work, but the inconsistency of match day schedules, the constant tinkering of venues, and the lousy match night experience have not helped. However, the real bright spot amidst all of this is the awfully named LionsXII.  When I first moved to this part of the world, all I had heard about were the “great days” of the 90s and full houses all over the place, but now there is an excitement that could, perhaps, compare.

Roaring back with the LionsXII

The LionsXII represent a community. They may have been called the LionsXII but they are, on their travels, really Singapore. When the LionsXII are competing in the Malaysian Super League in 2013, the crowds filled the lovely football venue at Jalan Besar. The atmosphere was, at times, electric, and there was a genuine home advantage and a real feel-good factor about football. There’s the national interest surrounding the AFF Suzuki Cup every two years, but the LionsXII  made that “every couple of years” feel-good factor a regular occurrence. Something to build upon, surely.

And when the LionsXII won the Super League in 2013, they excited the entire island and the back pages boasted pictures of Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak.

However, they then took a backward step. While Malaysian teams were allowed to strengthen by adding an extra import for the 2014 season, Fandi Ahmad’s team were castrated with Hariss, Bai and Shahril crossing over the Causeway.  Although the team worked hard and gave their all, results were difficult to come by against strengthened opposition, and the feel-good factor quickly disappeared. The LionsXII and Fandi were crying out for a quality forward to help Khairul Amri, maybe an Abbas Saad or an Alistair Edwards. Safuwan could also have done with a Jang Jung alongside him at the back.

At the start of the LionsXII initiative, I winced upon hearing it was to be a developmental squad. They bucked the trend for two years because they had some outstanding players, but from my observations about age-restricted teams playing in professional leagues, players don’t really develop if they lose all the time. If there are no experienced pros to help them along, they miss out. I have always believed that Bai became the player he is today because he was guided by the likes of Peter Davies and Lim Tong Hai in the early years. Safuwan benefitted in later years from playing alongside Bai.

By the end of the 2014 season – a year after becoming the champions – a vibrant atmosphere was lost and a chance for them to dominate the local papers was spurned. The LionsXII also struggled to attract 3000 fans to their games. However, that was still 2000 more than most S.League games.

I have no doubt that the LionsXII experiment has hurt the S.League. It has dominated publicity and taken interest away from the local league, but I would argue that it is because the clubs, for various reasons, have not made themselves relevant to their local community and are surviving on hand-outs from the FAS and league sponsors rather than operating from a solid base. How do we go about it then?

It’s simple, really. Politics aside, a vibrant Singapore playing in Malaysia could get people talking about local football again. Imagine if that side had reached a Malaysia Cup final. There would have been 500 buses heading up the North-South highway! Instead, whilst 20% of Malaysia stopped to watch the recent Malaysia Cup final, Singapore’s own league and cup finale barely registered a flicker on the national consciousness.

So, let’s bring the Lions – the proper Lions – back to the Super League and get the S.League back to the basics of representing a community and living within their means. And then build from there.