ASL could work, but are we ready for the consequences?

Former FAS president Zainudin Nordin continues to promote his regional vision, but the failed LionsXII experiment proved that Singapore isn’t big enough for two rival competitions, argues Neil Humphreys 

Let’s give Zainudin Nordin the benefit of the doubt for a moment.

The former Football Association of Singapore president intends to make his ASEAN Super League (ASL) dream a reality and continues to champion its cause.

On paper, a regional league across an area that encompasses more than 600 million people would conceivably entice potential advertisers and sponsors.

And the ASL’s survival depends not on the taxpayer, but on affluent individuals, companies and conglomerates as it intends to rely on private funding.

In that sense, the league could do as it pleases. The prospect of owning an Asean club may well appeal to a bored oligarch, a restless towkay or a young, tech entrepreneur with a tender ego to massage.

Moreover, a concentrated, focused approach – one team, one country, one region – pools resources to make Zainudin’s hope of every squad having two world-class players a financial possibility at least. (That said, the S.League couldn’t hang on to Jermaine Pennant for more than a season, but the Asean Super League believes it can lure an ageing Iniesta or a slumming Zlatan to every club).

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Pennant could not even last beyond one season in the S.League. Photo: S.League

Zainudin’s enthusiasm for the project is admirable, but an ASEAN Super League, in any shape or form, would surely turn out the lights on the S.League.

There would no way back, no hope of resuscitation and no second chance.

Actually, it’d be a third chance. We’ve already been here before.

The LionsXII project promised to tick the same boxes. Remember those giddy pledges back in 2011?

The LionsXII project promised to tick the same boxes. Remember those giddy pledges back in 2011?

Singapore’s return to regional club competition would create a pathway for budding talent.

And a renewed Causeway rivalry would resurrect the dormant Kallang Roar by tapping into the nation’s collective Malaysia Cup memories.

But it didn’t. It didn’t really come close.

Six thousand diehards at Jalan Besar were not six thousand new recruits to the Malaysia Cup cause, but hundreds of existing S.League supporters cynically shepherded into one place (the numbers were further bolstered by stat boards with an underlying interest in nation-building projects).

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The fans came back, but it was not enough. Photo: LionsXII

Whatever corporate, media and turnstile support was left in Singapore football was rebranded and redirected towards the LionsXII.

For a while, the illusion held. Renewed media and government interest – and a couple of excellent trophies – fuelled the perception that the national sport was a fluttering phoenix escaping the flames.

But the funnel had turned upside down, focusing on a single squad rather than the pressing need for radical reform across the grassroots levels of the game.

But the funnel had turned upside down, focusing on a single squad rather than the pressing need for radical reform across the grassroots levels of the game.

At the same time, the S.League’s last rites were close to being administered and hardly anyone cared.

Only the end of the LionsXII and the arrival of Jermaine Pennant kept the S.League on life support – for a season.

Once Pennant bid a hasty retreat and Albirex Niigata (S) won every trophy on offer, the temptation to flick the switch returned once more.  

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Albirex's dominance killed off interest in the league

The Little Red Dot lacks the coaching infrastructure and the production line to provide regular talent for two leagues with very different objectives.

When the LionsXII took a silver spoon and scooped the cream off the top, the S.league made do with the leftovers.

With even greater financial carrots presumably in the ASL, the talent exodus would only be accelerated.

And then there are those conflicting, confusing messages and mission statements. The LionsXII and the S.League both claimed to serve the national cause, providing incubators for the senior sides.

But the best ended up playing in Malaysia against mostly inferior opposition and the rest were stuck in the S.League among the also-rans, which prepared neither for international competition.

As a result, the Lions dropped to an all-time low of 171st in Fifa’s rankings in October.

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Singapore dropped to an all-time low in FIFA rankings recently. Photo: Weixiang Lim/FFT

By its very definition, a privately funded competition must serve its paymasters. An ASEAN league has no fiscal, moral or societal responsibilities when it comes to regional grassroots development.

Aside from winning trophies, the ASL’s overriding purpose would be to offer club owners a return on investment, like the English Premier League.

By its very definition, a privately funded competition must serve its paymasters. An Asean league has no fiscal, moral or societal responsibilities when it comes to regional grassroots development.

And just look how well the Three Lions have fared at major tournaments since the multinational EPL arrived in 1992.

Intriguingly, the men behind the ASL have studied the EPL, along with Major League Soccer and the A.League, as they fashion a viable model of their own.

But the comparisons are not quite right.

Looking at those leagues as a possible template once again highlights that kiasu desire to short-circuit an organic process in a bid to find immediate success.

Long-established domestic leagues with deep grassroots foundations and entrenched fan bases are being used as models for a continental competition that has none of the above (in most of its countries).

Not for the first time, Singapore football seeks to run before it can walk.

At best, the Asean Super League might offer an amusing distraction. At worst, it’ll be the death of the S.League

Continental competitions are rarely greater than the sum of their parts. The UEFA Champions League owes its prestige to the stable, long-term achievements of its European participants.

Domestic leagues that are collectively popular and well organised usually provide the springboard for a regional tournament. It’s seldom the other way round.

And yet, the ASL plans to build a house of cards on quicksand.

At best, the Asean Super League might offer an amusing distraction. At worst, it’ll be the death of the S.League.

Main Photo: LionsXII