How to save the S.League, Part II: Make it strictly local
Asking Albirex Niigata to leave the S.League is like asking Tom Hanks to leave a party.
They’re the nicest guys in the room. They respect their audience, they epitomise the best qualities of their craft and they are a credit to their profession.
In the most positive sense, the White Swans are the Forrest Gump of the S.league. They’re kind, honest, selfless and utterly benign.
But for the good of the local game, they may need to be ushered off the park bench.
This particular season seems to be going out of its way to demonstrate how the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) foreign initiative has failed.
During the S.League’s international break, a quick look at the table makes for depressing reading.
Albirex are swaggering towards the title, which would be their second in a row. They remain undefeated after 10 games, with a five-point cushion at the summit.
At the other end, Brunei DPMM are second last after nine games. They've managed one win and one draw (a dreadful 0-0 trudge against the equally hapless Young Lions).
Brunei’s wretched form, along with Albirex’s trophy procession, seriously questions the validity of the foreign experiment.
The foreign experiment simply hasn't worked
When overseas clubs first joined the S.League in 2003, the move was intended to resurrect flagging interest and broaden the talent pool.
It’s a neat theory, but it’s like inviting Tom Hanks to participate in Singapore-produced drama serials on the off chance that his calibre might rub off on his co-stars and create homegrown Oscar winners.
Albirex exist to serve their paymasters back in Niigata. The clue is in the name ... the best will always go home
That was never likely to happen. First, the necessary grassroots funding was always lacking. Secondly, the football equivalent of Hanks isn’t coming to Singapore, is it?
Albirex, to their eternal credit, have certainly tried their best, producing the last two S.League players of the year.
In 2015, Fumiya Kogure earned the accolade and went on to join Hougang United, a rare example of a foreign club spreading the talent around.
But the 2016 player of the year, Atsushi Kawata, was rewarded with a move back to his parent club in the J.League, underlining their overriding objective.
Albirex exist to serve their paymasters back in Niigata. The clue is in the name. They are a feeder club for a different league in a different country.
The lesser lights are free to extend their S.League careers, but the best will always go home.
Grassroots initiatives such as their ongoing memorandum of understanding with the Yuhua Community Club and their dogged attempts to unite the local and Japanese expat communities are a credit to their tireless administrators.
Before foreign clubs, the S.League used to be rather adept at player recruitment
But their brightest youngsters will always be lured back to the Land of the Rising Sun.
DPMM, on the other hand, were recently hammered 9-3 at Home United, mocking the suggestion that foreign clubs raise the playing standard here.
In fact, the opposite may be true.
In the late 1990s, before foreign sides were introduced, the S.League offered a depth and variety of overseas talent that it hasn’t come close to replicating since.
Goalkeeper Dragan Talajic, Iran’s World Cup star Hamid Reza Eestili, the Thai mavericks Surachai Jatuapattarapong and Tawan Sripan, the strike pair of Egmar Goncalves and Mirko Grabovac, plus Majid Motlagh, the regal playmaker at Queenstown, were just a handful of superior performers.
Since 2003, foreign clubs have toiled in vain to produce players of a similar pedigree.
Indeed, one of the most promising foreigners currently, South Korea’s Song Ui-Young, plays for Home United. But his journey didn’t include a foreign club.
He took the more conventional route, via solid scouting, i.e. how the rest of the world typically finds its players.
Before foreign clubs, the S.League used to be rather adept at player recruitment. Back then, most local teams had a Song Ui-Young or two.
S.League troubles unlike any in the world
Today the foreign talent is largely concentrated at the top of the table. Should Albirex win a second consecutive title, it will be the third in a row for foreign clubs.
This is not only an embarrassment for the FAS, it's uniquely Singaporean.
Anoraks may prove otherwise, but it’s been hard to find any other football nation in a similarly ridiculous position.
As long as there are foreign clubs making up the numbers, the S.League will never be truly credible
Of course, clubs playing in foreign leagues are not uncommon.
New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix play in the Australian A-League. Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham are obviously not English. Toronto FC take part in the MLS and there are overlaps between club sides in San Marino and Italy and Germany and Switzerland, among others.
But in most instances, there are specific geographical and logistical reasons, such as their nations share borders or their own countries do not have professional football leagues.
Only Singapore can say its national sports league was won by a side filled with players of French descent.
A side that vanished just two years later.
The Etoile FC episode can be called many things, except a shining example of the S.League’s credibility.
And that’s the real issue. As long as there are foreign clubs making up the numbers, the S.League will never be truly credible.
It doesn’t help that the history of foreign clubs in Singapore is sprinkled with enough corruption and administrative incompetence to suggest their anthem should be Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse.
Foreign clubs can inject cash and charter buses of expatriate kids from international schools, but they are short-term measures
In 2006, Sporting Afrique Football Club made global headlines for allegedly making their players live in squalor, with five men sharing a single room.
Two years later, Liaoning Guangyuan did their bit to sustain the Mickey Mouse vibe, when their team manager was arrested on match-fixing charges. He promptly vanished. Six Liaoning players were eventually jailed.
Not to be outdone, Brunei DPMM had their results expunged in 2009, when FIFA suspended the Football Association of Brunei Darussalam for government interference in its affairs.
And, to bring the foreign farce up to date, Sinchi FC still reportedly maintain a jackpot clubhouse at Sultan Plaza, despite having no S.League involvement since 2005.
In comparison to that lot, the White Swans really are paragons of virtue.
It's time to end the laughter
Nevertheless, when foreign clubs occupy a national league’s centre stage for a sustained period, then it is no longer a national league. It’s a laughing stock for outsiders and an irrelevance among most Singaporeans.
When there is no point of connection between a league and its community, there is no reason for its existence.
Foreign clubs can inject cash and charter buses of expatriate kids from international schools, but they are short-term measures.
At best, Albirex and DPMM are well-intentioned shots of morphine, helping to delay the inevitable.
Unless an organic relationship can be established between fans and their neighbourhood clubs, the S.League will never reattach the umbilical cord that was severed at the turn of the century.
Local is the only way to go.