How to save the S.League, Part III: Bring back Singapore’s local, sleeping giants
It’s the universal law of football fandom – if there’s no geographical, communal or spiritual connection, there’s no point for the club’s existence (the preponderance of EPL supporters among Singaporeans is another column altogether).
A foreign solution for a local problem
But the frustrating thing was the S.League was getting there. At the turn of the century, key fixtures were still witnessing regular crowds of three or four thousand. The relationship between club and community was tenuous, but it just about existed.
And then, the Football Association of Singapore panicked.
Instead of riding out the storm, the S.League did what Singapore often does in times of economic uncertainty. It covered the shortfall with foreigners
Presumably, a couple of key performance indicators weren’t met, a line graph plateaued and a minister might have raised an eyebrow, which led to the sledgehammers coming out to swat a few flies.
The ASEAN currency crisis, SARS and the subsequent economic downturns adversely affected the S.League. There’s no doubt of that.
Sponsors bolted. Seasonal budgets were squeezed and transfer targets headed elsewhere.
But instead of riding out the storm, the S.League did what Singapore often does in times of economic uncertainty. It covered the shortfall with foreigners.
So they came. They saw. They cocked up, at least most of the time.
Sporting Afrique had their players living in abject poverty. Liaoning Guangyuan proved to be better at fixing matches than playing them. And Sinchi FC maintain jackpot machines despite having no S.League involvement.
Brunei DPMM and Albirex Niigata at least pay their bills, but their role in building an affiliation with the S.League is contentious at best.
If anything, the introduction of foreign clubs in 2003 might have accelerated the league’s demise.
Despite the best intentions of both DPMM and Albirex, their matches can be dispiriting sporting occasions.
A sprinkling of retirees and the half-hearted efforts of cheerleaders do not make for a scintillating spectacle. Instead, the poignant imagery only reinforces how far the S.League has fallen.
Tapping in to a readymade fan base
It feels contradictory and unnecessary to call upon foreign clubs to wake a comatose local league. Just give our indigenous sleeping giants a kick.
Woodlands has a population size of around 250,000. One per cent of that figure would be enough to ensure a lively evening at Woodlands Stadium.
It’s difficult to criticise football fans in Clementi or Gombak for being indifferent to the S.League’s cause
With their combined populations, Sembawang and Yishun have almost 300,000 reasons to potentially bring the Stallions back to Yishun Stadium.
Queenstown has close to 100,000 and boasts Singapore’s first sports complex, currently gathering rust but no Jaguars supporters.
Without Tanjong Pagar United, Queenstown Stadium is a house, but not a home.
And without Clementi and Gombak, western Singapore desperately needs greater representation to justify the S.League’s existence.
Apart from developing young talent, a national league’s overriding purpose must be to nurture a bond with its diverse communities.
In this regard, the S.League is clearly failing.
It’s difficult to criticise football fans in Clementi or Gombak for being indifferent to the S.League’s cause, when they don’t have an S.League club to identify with in the first place.
Foreign teams may help the S.League to remain solvent, but Singapore has Shenton Way to make its money. What Singapore doesn’t have is a league that appeals to all Singaporeans.
If it’s not local enough, locals won’t care enough.
Only a community club reaches parts of the Singapore psyche that foreign clubs cannot reach.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo unless stated