Only one thing wrong with Singapore football... Everything

Sacking Bernd Stange might satisfy some, but it doesn't solve deep-rooted problems in local football. Neil Humphreys examines where Singapore has gone wrong in recent years...

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The lamentable state of Singapore football evokes surreal memories of that great scene in Airplane 2, where the stewardess announces that the plane is off course, the navigational instruments are smashed, asteroids are likely to kill them all and, worst of all, they’ve run out of coffee.

Cue mayhem.

Right now, that stewardess is standing at the front of a doomed aircraft and addressing each of Singapore’s perilous football problems… The Lions are 158th in the idiotic world rankings… Their manager appears to have won his job in a competition on the back of a cornflakes box… Singapore might be the only nation where supporters pledge their allegiance by wearing Manchester United and Liverpool jerseys and the S-League is whimpering against the dying of the light.

And, worst of all, the Lions lost to Malaysia.

Cue mayhem.

The Lions could find no way past their Causeway rivals on Saturday. Photo: Weixiang Lim

It’s hard not to compare Singapore today with Scotland in the late 1960s. The Scots were a hardy bunch against the English, but played like the Brady Bunch against just about everyone else. As the late Bobby Moore pointed out, Scotland’s worldview was such that as long as the Tartan Army were toppling the despised mob across the border, farcical defeats against abject opposition quickly faded from the memory.

READ ALSO Opinion: Bernd Stange – The wrong choice from the start

Singapore football is still afflicted by the same myopia. The domestic league may stand at the precipice as sponsors flock to Formula 1 and the odd tennis knock-up between pros turning up for a pre-Christmas bonus, but as long as the local heroes make a mess of Malaysia, all is right with the world.

So now all is wrong with the world, obviously. But then, is there anything particularly right about the current state of the country’s national sport? A quaint, kampong mentality continues to thwart the game’s progress in both cultural and economic terms.

Slinking back across the Causeway

The return to the Malaysian Super League was not a moment to savour but an admission of defeat, a desperate attempt to return to the kampong rivalries that pretty much died with the last of the kampongs.

Rather than acknowledge the systemic failings of the S-League and bring in new administrative and corporate blood to try and stop the hemorrhaging of both supporters and sponsors, the last few eggs were thrown into the MSL basket.

At a stroke, domestic football was written off as a basket case. The return to Malaysian football was a subconscious acceptance that the small island needed to be propped up by its Causeway rival. The umbilical cord had to be reattached to ancient history to save a dying future.

The move has clearly not worked.

LionsXII enjoy decent support at games, but at what cost for the S.League? Photo: Weixiang Lim

The S-League lost its best players and supporters to the MSL. Hardcore fan bases swapped their S.League jerseys for LionsXII tops. Rising S.League talents lost the chance to take on their elder, established statesmen in weekly battles. Singapore football was already weak. But the MSL left it fragmented, shattered by administrators who assumed that a cynical reconnection to the halcyon days of the Malaysia Cup would fan those flickering flames.

But this isn’t 1994. The Malaysia Cup preceded the Internet, cable television and dozens of live European games a week. A generation has grown up with their spiritual roots to the Beautiful Game fertilized by Messi and Ronaldo, rather than Fandi and Sundram. Frankly, the Malaysia Cup belongs to an era of tight shorts and Bananarama. It means nothing to many young Singaporeans now.

And yet, the archaic criteria used to measure football progress remains. Judging by the crowds that usually flock to Causeway contests, beating Malaysia can be all that matters. Just as a SEA Games gold medal can still be viewed as a sporting pinnacle rather than a stepping-stone to greater glory.

In areas of finance and education, Singapore trumpets its ability to punch above its weight on the global stage but appears content to remain a goldfish in an Asean football puddle.

The short-term hamster wheel

As a result, the focus is immediate, narrow and restrictive. Targets are short-term and parochial; the next SEA Games, the next Suzuki Cup and then the next SEA Games after that. Such an approach will invariably result in a predictable roller-coaster ride with fixed dimensions. A Suzuki Cup victory is suddenly followed by group stage failure. Triumph becomes despair so quickly because the puddle is so small. Managers come and go but the deeply entrenched cultural and societal failings that stifle football’s growth remain.

Gabriel Quak was the only Chinese player in Singapore's Suzuki Cup squad. Photo: Weixiang Lim

With a fixation on short-term goals, there is no root and branch reform, no strategy in place to address Singapore’s shortcomings over a generation, similar to the one adopted by the Germans after the Euro 2000 disaster. It was easy to mock at the time for its naïve optimism, but at least Singapore’s Goal 2010 project had a vision. There was a willingness to recognise where the country was going so desperately wrong.

Most of us already know and perhaps the inconvenient truth remains too unpalatable and politically sensitive to address. But let’s tick off the uncomfortable checklist to jog the memory.

  • With no guarantee of financial security in professional sport, the affluent Chinese will never consider football a viable career.
  • Cheering a nation in a jersey that celebrates a domestic club in Lancashire is a cultural problem unlikely to be fixed any time soon when a sports hub is built to attract Brazil and Japan for a mid-season kickabout.
  • When a smaller, vibrant, passionate section of Malaysian supporters, many of whom were wearing their actual national team colours rather than Arsenal’s away kit, make more noise than the home crowd, our sporting soul is in need of introspective analysis.
  • When a national stadium considers switching to astroturf – a final decision has yet to be made – to accommodate more Cantopop singers and One Direction’s backing band, its priorities deserve to be questioned.

The problems are easy. The solutions are hard. Sacking Bernd Stange is an option, but just another kneejerk reaction to the latest short-term failing; the most obvious deckchair to kick around on the Titanic.

It’s got to be all or nothing now. That’s widespread root and branch reform based on a generational strategy between the public and private sectors and driven by radical, invested stakeholders. 

We’ve already got nothing. So there really is nothing left to lose.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.