By backing the ASL, will the S.League cut off its nose to spite its face?
There is a tendency when caught in an argument to reduce the options to two simple opposites. Look, for example, at the debate over whether to restore standing areas in English football.
Those in favour argue that other countries have shown it is possible to have safe areas for those who don't want to sit and these improve the atmosphere too.
There are arguments against, but too often the response is along the lines of “you want a return to the terrible days of the ‘80s? You must be mad!” As if there is no option in between.
After the recent Annual General Meeting of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), its president Zainudin Nordin came out with comments along similar lines.
“What do we want to provide for our talent? To just say ‘OK, play in this league’ or say ‘The world is your oyster’?”
This is part of the reasoning behind the president's solid push for the ASEAN Super League (ASL).
He is the man making most of the moves. Yet there are surely more than the two options offered by the boss.
It is the classic reductionist argument and, like many such methods of persuasion, it doesn't really work.
When it comes to super leagues, the big ideas are often impressive and enticing. The best teams from the best countries playing each other on a regular basis (though the Asian Champions League is pretty close already) and being part of a football-mad region of over 600 million is certainly an exciting image.
The problem often comes in the detail, which really is a devil. How is it going to work? Is the simplest question and like many simple questions, it is tough to answer. What will it look like? Who will compete and how? Will there be new teams created for the tournament or will existing ones compete? How will it link with the current league format, if at all?
These are questions that should have been answered already. Zainudin's attempts to sell the ASL are necessary but currently very premature as there has been no attempt yet to actually outline the structure of the league. We don't know what is being sold so how can we buy into this idea?
First FAS – and this project is in danger as being identified as Singaporean rather than an ASEAN one – needs to tell us what it has in mind. Then it can try to persuade us that it is a good thing. It doesn't bode well.
And neither does the analogy to Belgium. FAS vice president Edwin Tong seemed to suggest that the league in Belgium is of little consequence when it comes to the world's number one ranked national team.
This would come as something of a shock to fans that have been following big and historic teams in the country for decades. Until the expansion of the UEFA Champions League, Anderlecht were one of the biggest names in European football.
When it comes to national league and national team, we should not have to choose. It does not have to be a case of one or the other. The two should complement each other, even if there are different ways for this to happen. There are Belgians starring in Europe's biggest leagues and few of the best stay at home. They are produced there though. There is a pathway to the top that starts in Belgium even if it ends elsewhere. In global terms, the country has a pretty good league, just not one of the best. The same should be similar for the S.League in Asia.
Well-run clubs with decent development systems would help and surely this is the job of the S.League. There are issues with the league that are tough to solve and the FAS has an unenviable job in this respect. Maybe there is no answer but it should still be the priority. Is the gap too far between Singapore and the J-League and K-League as Zainudin states?
Perhaps though it is only now that these two East Asian nations (who love their national teams but are constantly trying to improve their leagues) are starting to contemplate Southeast Asian talent.
And if they are too far then Malaysia and Thailand are not. There's nothing wrong with trying to get more players into these two leagues and the Asian Champions League and actually facing the best clubs in Asia.
Making the S.League play second fiddle to the national team is one thing, doing the same with the ASL is extremely risky. The S.League should be the best that Singapore can offer, clubs should be set up to win domestic glory and then challenge overseas. If the league becomes a feeder for something that does not exist yet then there is not likely to be much motivation for clubs and players.
And there is another problem. What if the Super League does not work? If you set up the S.League to support another competition and that competition fails to take off, what do you do?
If Malaysia and Thailand are not going to send their best players, and it is hard to imagine why they would (as Chonburi coach Therdsak Chaiman told FourFourTwo recently), then the whole of Singapore football is going to be geared up in favour of a second-rate competition with an uncertain future.
All associations should be looking to do the same: make the league as strong as it can be. Do that and the national team and even super leagues can fall into place. The choice between one and the other does not have to be made.