Iceland and Syria make a mockery of Singapore's tired excuses

Smaller countries and even war-torn nations are now humiliating the Lions’ lack of football progress on the international stage, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Here's a fun fact. If you lined up the populations of both Iceland and Bedok, you’d struggle to spot the difference.

The Nordic island has an estimated population of 329,000. According to the latest estimates, Singapore’s eastern town is tiptoeing towards 300,000.

But the Icelanders are on their way to the Euro 2016 finals. Bedok residents are probably on their way to the shiny shopping mall above the MRT. The shiny, shimmery development even has an air-conditioned bus interchange.

It’s a question of priority really.

With their dash into the history books, Lars Lagerback’s men not only have a manager with the finest name in world football, they have warmed the hearts of an eternally chilly nation with their Cinderella story and made fools of those who cling to that naive notion that Singapore is always destined to be a pumpkin.

Those lazy excuses for the Little Red Dot’s entrenched inability to get any better at kicking a ball around highlight only a country’s inferiority complex and its systemic failings.

They are excuses not based on fact, but outdated misperceptions.

Whatever the weather, committed, structured and enterprising countries make headway. Singapore’s air-conditioned nation often speaks of the insufferable heat and humidity as tough obstacles to clear.

Having experienced the heat of Manaus, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio during the World Cup, the weather argument always struggled to hold water. Through the perspiration, Brazil still produce superstars.

Keep off the grass

The shivering souls of Iceland are at the opposite end of the barometer. In mid-winter, there are only four-to-five hours of effective daylight each day. Inhospitable weather isn’t a freak occurrence, but a way of life. Until the 2000s, football could only be played for four or maybe five months a year. Youth development was seasonal. So Iceland adapted to their environment.

Seven full-size indoor pitches were built and a further 20 artificial full-size pitches were added outdoors around the country. And here’s the kicker for Singapore to consider. Almost every Icelandic school now has an artificial football pitch, making a total of 130 on the island, and they’re open to all.

A country with hardly any people, space or even daylight at times picked up six wins from seven games on their way to qualifying for Euro 2016

There is a laissez-faire philosophy at play. As long as the local school or a community club are not using the facilities, footballers of all ages just need to bring a ball.

For years now, the debate has continued over the use of Singapore’s state land earmarked for future residential or commercial development. Currently, the signs are still here. Keep off the grass. No trespassing. Pool your resources and book a pitch at one of the cage facilities dotted around the island. Even a kickaround with kakis isn’t free in Singapore.

Rather than bleat about what they didn’t have, Iceland fully utilised what they did have, opening up just about every patch of grass to maximise the potential of only 21,508 registered players.

And a country with hardly any people, space or even daylight at times picked up six wins from seven games on their way to qualifying for Euro 2016.

In a literal, meteorological sense, Iceland raged against the dying of the light and prevailed. Darkness couldn’t stop them any more than civil war can stop Syria.

While the desperate, displaced people of the ravaged country continue to flee persecution, their football heroes defy every opponent and all logic in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Sundram, Fandi and Stange form Singapore's national coaching team. Photo: FAS

They cannot play in their homeland. Syria cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens, let alone the security of a football match. So the weary footballers are forever on the road, playing every game away.

In Phnom Penh this week, they hammered Cambodia 6-0, their third win in a row. Syria have scored 13 goals with none conceded and top a group that includes Japan. They have never qualified for the World Cup. They are more than footballers. They carry the hopes of a country stuck in an eternal nightmare.

Singapore’s recent 1-0 defeat to Syria was mostly interpreted as a step in the right direction – by Singapore.

The Lions had almost roared. The Little Red Dot had swelled slightly on the international stage, losing, of course, but only by a narrow margin.

Goalless 2010

Singapore remains a victim of its own insecurities, too used to hearing its broken record of excuses. We are small. So we must fall. The national game is defined by its own narrow, self-imposed parameters.

When Singapore, quite rightly, attempted to raise the bar with the ill-fated Goal 2010 project in the late 1990s, Iceland’s footballers could only play for four months of the year, thanks to inclement weather and poor infrastructure.

The Goal 2010 project failed and Singapore’s decision-makers lost a little face, so they ducked beneath the parapet and stayed there. But Iceland moved on.

They are going to Euro 2016. Singapore are going nowhere.

War-torn neighbours Syria and Iraq are still unbeaten in the Asian World Cup qualifying competition. On a football field, they are unbroken, unbowed; their indefatigable spirit as uplifting as it is humbling.

Singapore has major, obvious advantages over all three nations. It has safety, security, wealth, established infrastructure, more tolerable weather and, despite the propagated myth, enough people and spaces to progress.

What Singapore football really doesn’t have – at all any more – are excuses.