Don't let the sun go down on me
A visit to the Singapore National Stadium is not what it used to be – no pre-match gathering of friends and families at its foot, waiting to scale its imperiously wide stairs together.
These days when you’ve made your way up the narrow escalators to the turnstiles guarded by bar-code scanners, you are first greeted by an image of the national flag projected onto a closed roof, its stars and moon lost in the galaxy of steelwork, so only the bright duotones of our hazy neighbours remain.
Gone are the inviting skies that were once punctuated only by four floodlights and two scoreboards – a sight that swallowed itself as one descended deeper into the belly of the colosseum. The wooden seats that used to give me splinters have also given way to red and white plastic seats that tell me exactly how far I should stay from my ticketed neighbour, and how close I should keep to myself.
Of course, past glories are more fondly remembered than the present grind; the story of progress is also a lesson in letting go. But if Singapore football is playing its way out of the shadow of its former fortunes, it sure is taking its time.
Proving a point is a two way street: there is the party seeking to do so, and then if so privileged, there is the party present and waiting to be impressed. Last night’s match against Japan brought both elements together – the media monkey was all over its back and the crowd quite simply drew itself.
For the first time, for football, the Sports Hub was a sea parted into red and blue, peppered throughout by office white. This was the perfect stage for the boys to show not merely that they were worthwhile footballers, but that football in Singapore was worth the while.
So the stars rolled out, anthems were played, a ball was kicked. The team in red were valiant in bits and bobs, the team in blue were patient throughout. For 90 minutes the Lions played for pride; in the animal kingdom this means for family too.
In return, the crowd carried them: together, every save was celebrated, each miss was groaned; every dip of the head was mirrored, but quickly lifted by the cheerleaders in Section 131.
It took 20 minutes for the first breach – until then every Singaporean watched in nervous awe as Izwan continued to write his own legend, each heroic dive affirmed all around by fists punching the Kallang air. When he fell, we did too. 2-0, and the game became about finding joy beyond the result, and fending off the obtuse schadenfreude of the many happy Japanese fans across and among us.
Two other moments brought great cheer: the half time ‘Roar Cam’ finding the cutest caucasian kid giving his best impression of said Katy Perry song, and Shinji Kagawa’s introduction to the fray – revealing that the inner red in many Singaporean fans instead belonged in Manchester. Ironic cheers also simmered as Maya Yoshida guided the ball home for Japan’s third goal: the economical football fan just pleased to see the net bludge once more, and can now say that they have seen a Premier League star score.
But in the end what we must remember is this: Safuwan nearly scored, Safuwan didn’t; Hafiz should have scored, Hafiz didn’t.
So it goes that football is a game of fine margins. Equally, an impression is a collection of moments. As the stadium rose to meet Faris Ramli’s perfect cross, Hafiz Sujad meekly glanced the ball wide, sitting us firmly back down.
This is the Singapore story in a second: a game of expectations, a series of disappointments, a scaling of hopes. This is also the sorry fate of the Kallang Roar, from sound to subtext – once famed, now fabled.
Perhaps someone will point out that Stange’s squad is young, and rather refreshingly, free of the Foreign Talent Scheme and its questionable benefits. Still, someone else will look at the results and find that it would be characteristically Singaporean to deem them too slow and too insignificant to matter.
For now, this sleeping lion is left to lie in her fancy new cage. A faction of faithful fans bang on the drums at each match, but for how long, and to what end? The hope is that she will rise again; the dream is that she does so before the rust starts showing on the doors and no one cares enough to feed her anymore.