A Tim Cahill-led charge is changing the face of football in Australia, and Neil Humphreys thinks Safuwan Baharudin could do the same for Singapore following his move Down Under.
Australians are standing up for one’s man revolution. Tim Cahill played the first domino and now they’re all falling for the Beautiful Game. Even cricket’s big bashers and the Australian Open’s hardest hitters cannot halt his momentum. The Asian Cup Final is poised to become a rehash of The Little Engine That Could. The Socceroos, the tournament and the game itself are all standing at a corner flag, bobbing and weaving, punching above their weight.
But Cahill leads the cavalry. He’s the fuse, the trigger. He’s the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that ignited a war to win the hearts and minds of soccer sceptics.
It needs an army to win a war. It only needs one man to start a revolution.
Singapore football must take heart from the Hollywood scenes being played out at stadiums across Australia. A 35-year-old midfielder-turned-striker is not only raging against the dying of the light. He’s pulling his sport out of the shadows.
Cahill is not alone in his quest. He’s ably supported, from front to back, by Mat Ryan in goal, Trent Sainsbury, Matthew Spiranovic, Mile Jedinak and Robbie Kruse.
But Cahill alone has captured a nation’s imagination. The kids are calling out his name in the school playgrounds, mimicking his shadow boxing goal celebrations at corner flags and will wear his jersey at the final against South Korea.
Whether it’s Rocky Balboa or Bull Durham, sport loves a simple narrative. It only takes one man to make a difference.
Singaporeans mostly remember the Malaysian Cup Dream Team of 1994, but no one will forget Fandi Ahmad’s goal for Groningen against Inter Milan. The skinny kid from the kampongs walked among kings, but he also allowed Singaporeans to walk taller. One goal made Fandi, but it also made a thousand other Fandis.
Everyone wanted to be Fandi in the same way that Singaporeans want to be Cristiano Ronaldo today, but Fandi was different. He was one of them. He came with an escape plan, a direct route from the kampong to the Uefa Cup. He had opened a door for others to walk through. Suddenly, a distant dream was a plausible ambition. There was a precedent, a pioneer. There was hope.
Cahill is doing the same for young Socceroos supporters and much more besides. Aspiring footballers Down Under are not only up against global competition, but often bitchy, resentful competition from within. Like the Singapore Lions and the S-League, the Socceroos and the A-League are also battling Europe’s top leagues for a slice of the spotlight. But the biggest threat remains domestic, from oval-shaped balls and outdated stereotypes.
The Socceroos’ semi-final against UAE was not played in Melbourne because there was a concern that the world game would fail to attract enough interest. An Aussie Rules bigwig suggested the Asian Cup would be a “lemon”, an inconsequential tournament showcasing a minority sport.
Cahill and company put those stereotypes to bed as they slowly transcended their sporting roles. Cahill has unwittingly become an evangelist, preaching the gospel of soccer in unoccupied territories. He plants a flag with every header.
On a smaller scale, perhaps, Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny and centre-back Safuwan Baharudin could do something similar. Hassan recently secured a move to Thai Premier League side Army United. More impressively, Safuwan has just finalised a deal with A-League side Melbourne City.
Melbourne City are owned by Manchester City. They often play to 30,000 hardcore followers who revel in their volatile rivalry with Melbourne Victory. The move represents a remarkable step-up for the talented 23-year-old.
Other Singaporeans have enjoyed overseas stints, but none so high profile since Fandi at Groningen and V Sundramoorthy at FC Basel.
Safuwan may find himself cast in a similar role to Fandi and Sundram. He’s a pioneer leading a Singaporean expedition into uncharted territory. He’s an evangelist selling Singapore football.
But he carries both more and less than Cahill. Safuwan carries the hopes of a nation at a time when its domestic league is faltering and its national sides are bereft of inspiration and direction. But his nation is, and always will be, a football nation.
Australia isn’t. Australia is a rugby league country, an Aussie Rules country, a cricket country and, once every four years, an Olympics country. It is not, and never has been, a football country.
But that’s changing. Cahill-mania grips the nation. The last of the Golden Generation continues to shine and Australia basks in his glow. Whether soccer’s rise can be sustained in Australia’s winter months when rugby and AFL return is a moot point. Like Cahill in the six-yard box, it’s found a viable space to operate. That’s all it needs to flourish.
The same could be said for Singapore football. No one expects Asian Cup qualification any time soon, just a slither of something positive to cling to, a cause for optimism; a spark.
Fandi did it in 1983. Cahill is doing it now. Safuwan has a great opportunity to follow a similar path.
Singapore football needs a revolution. And these things so often start with just one man.