Don't play games on hazy days

Schedules are tight, but there’s nothing to gain from playing in unhealthy conditions. The welfare of footballers and fans must come first, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Faris Ramli’s comments were so extraordinary they had to be read twice.

By his own admission, the 23-year-old winger hadn’t enjoyed his finest hour in a LionsXII jersey against Kedah on the weekend. But his excuse dropped jaws to the floor.

“I think the haze also affected us a bit because some players had difficulties breathing,” he said.

It was a startling claim to make for so many reasons, some obvious, others more depressing. At a time when Singaporeans are coughing and spluttering in overworked and understaffed polyclinic waiting rooms, professional footballers are battling to hold on to the most basic right of their existence.

They struggled to breathe. Faris had difficulty breathing. Think about that.

Being a winger, short, sharp intakes of oxygen followed by sudden, lung-busting runs are the tools of his trade. A winger truly is the product of his environment. If he cannot breathe, he cannot sprint. If he cannot sprint, he cannot function.

Faris Ramli (far left) and his LionsXII teammate played against Kedah on the weekend

But that’s the mechanics of his trade. Consider the fundamentals. Faris said he couldn’t breathe properly and yet his astonishing claim passed without further comment.

In some ways, his laboured breathing is no more disturbing than the apathy that followed. A collective shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgment that the haze is here to stay for the next couple of months was about as good as it got.

Are the LionsXII to be applauded for meandering their way through hazardous conditions against Kedah or is the lack of concern indicative of the ongoing indifference towards local football?

On a day when schools cancelled outdoor activities across the island and health adversaries reminded families to stay indoors whenever possible, Tampines Rovers were taking out Harimau Muda 5-1 at Jalan Besar Stadium.

In fairness, afternoon showers had dampened the smoky conditions, but the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) had tiptoed towards – and at times exceeded – 150 in previous days.

The Football Association of Singapore has quite rightly insisted that S.League matches could be delayed or postponed if the three-hourly PSI readings exceed 150 and called off the Tampines-Albirex fixture last week.

But the mercurial, windy conditions blow the index in more directions than Harimau Muda’s defence.

The most accurate barometer is common sense, best demonstrated by the rows of empty seats at the Tampines and Harimau Muda game. The deserted stands at Jalan Besar reflected perhaps the fans’ caution rather than their fickleness.

The S.League continues to work with community groups to resuscitate a flat-lining domestic game. Laudable initiatives are introduced to fertilise grassroots support around the estates. Expecting fans to sit for 90 minutes in unhealthy conditions isn’t one of them.

While cabbies wear masks inside their taxis, supporters are expected to pledge their allegiance to the club badge by enduring the haze at an open-air stadium. That tests the boundaries of the most committed zealots. Sting once sang of a stalker who followed him everywhere. Every breath he took, he was being watched. But at least the breath was clean.

On Sunday, the Warriors beat Balestier Khalsa 4-2 and the coverage focused on the Tigers ending the game with nine men, rather than both teams finishing in caliginous conditions as the PSI crept towards the unhealthy range in the early hours of Monday morning.

Figures can be fudged and erratic readings confuse the eyes, but the camera doesn’t lie.  The contest was clearly played out in the smoky air, the empty Jalan Besar stands little more than a gloomy blur behind the pitch. Whatever the PSI numbers before kick off, it was not a home fit for footballers by the final whistle.

Authorities will obviously monitor conditions and act accordingly, but semantics are surely less important than safety. In a literal sense, a PSI reading of 99 means a match can go ahead, but should it? It’s not quite unhealthy, but it’s hardly a weekend away at a spa retreat either.

Is there really an acceptable level of haze to play professional sport in?

Professional footballers must already labour in the region’s soggy, equatorial climate, putting them at an immediate disadvantage to their peers elsewhere. Asking them to also endure the sharp vicissitudes of hazy weather feels like a sacrifice too far. And don’t expect the crowds to come either.

At a time when the Government is putting its haze contingency plans into action, with companies handing out masks to cabbies and construction workers, footballers are not only expected to work, but to run, sprint and stretch every nerve and sinew beneath smoky clouds.

No footballer should be expected to suffer like Faris, whatever the PSI reading, whatever the sporting or economic significance of the fixture.

As the haze continues, a little dignity for local football would be a breath of fresh air.

All Photos: Football Association of Singapore