If S.League looks Mickey Mouse, parents won't play Goofy

Singaporean parents are generally dismissive of their kids forging successful football careers, and Neil Humphreys says the sorry state of the S.League isn't exactly helping either...

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In the end, it needed an old sailor to point out that Singapore football was all at sea. The vessel is listing, drifting and full of more holes than the stories coming out of Balestier Khalsa.

According to Dr Tan, a recent survey of 100 primary schools found that nearly one in two children wanted to play football, but only 5.9 per cent of boys and 1.6 per cent of girls were given the chance

Former sailing champion Dr Benedict Tan neatly summarized the nation’s flagging sport culture. The Nominated MP described parents leaning on kids to sacrifice sports for study. They demand MCs to skip training and return to the textbooks. Sports participation rates are down. Obesity levels are up.

In other words, Singapore is producing more knowledge-filled fat kids. We cannot always field a competitive first XI or fill a sports stadium, but we can always fill a study club or a hawker centre.

Singapore fixates on the key performance indicators, the short-term gains, the paper chase, the medal hauls and the pay grades. A box is swiftly ticked, before moving on to the next one without so much as a backward glance. We are slaves to the KPI culture, a straightjacket that inhibits us all. It’s hard to run, jump or score goals in a straightjacket.

With such an emphasis on the immediate, the elite, the also-rans are soon cut adrift. According to Dr Tan, a recent survey of 100 primary schools found that nearly one in two children wanted to play football, but only 5.9 per cent of boys and 1.6 per cent of girls were given the chance. If the kids don’t fit the KPI targets, if they can’t guarantee goals and medals quickly, then they don’t fit. They fall by the wayside.

If the sport, ultimately, has no quantifiable gain, be it in the form of CCA points at school or a monthly salary in the S.League, then the sport serves little purpose (the wishy-washy emphasis on a spiritual, personal gain doesn’t really fly).

There must be an end goal, a box to tick. The bottom line is always about the bottom line. That’s the bad news.

Now here’s the really bad news.

The S.League continues to validate the economic concerns of the average kiasu parent with its ongoing ineptitude.

At a time when Dr Tan and others, namely Bernard Tan and Edwin Tong at the Football Association of Singapore, are admirably seeking to move a nation’s emphasis away from the endless focus on the dollars and cents in sport, the S.League does precisely that.

At a time when the FAS’ Tan and Tong are working on a blueprint to increase participation at youth level and convince kids that professional football can be a viable career, the S.League once again proves that it almost certainly isn’t.

Singapore’s only professional sports league seems utterly determined to prove that it is anything but; that it remains a perennial punch-line for coffee shop jokers on both sides of the Causeway. It’s on a kamikaze mission through a PR minefield. And the hits just keep on coming.

The cynical 10-month contracts offered professional footballers the chance to make up the financial shortfall at 7-Eleven, the age-limit fiasco managed to offend just about everybody and the recent unsavoury business between Balestier Khalsa and their former players left jaws on floors everywhere.

After five years of sterling service, club captain Paul Cunningham was offered a 15-day contract extension to cover the RHB Singapore Cup Final. Fifteen days. Not surprisingly, he refused. He didn’t play and turned his back on the S.League. Park Kang Jin did the same after the South Korean flew back from his country only to be told when he arrived that he wouldn’t be offered a new contract. A phone call might have saved him time and the cost of an airline ticket.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Park is now considering quitting the game altogether.

Still, all is not lost. Balestier took out an ad on the Government’s JobsBank, an online job site, calling for “physically fit” footballers capable of playing in several positions as well as completing 2.4km in 10 minutes. According to those job requirements, I am just about eligible for a trial. So is my wife.

As long as professional football continues to be run like a surreal cross between an army camp and a Toa Payoh mini-mart, then credibility will be hard to come by. And whenever another farcical S.League story appears - and there seems to be an endless supply - the kiasu win. It’s a vindication for the cynical.

When the latest S.League cartoon paints a picture of buffoonery, it further fuels the country’s apathy towards not just football, but sports in general.

If Singapore’s only professional league can’t get its act together, what chance have other sports got? If the country’s most popular sport can’t pay its players regularly and fairly, why should my child sacrifice the books for a ball game?

It’s always easy to ridicule the kiasu among us. But if the S.League looks this Mickey Mouse, parents won’t want to play Goofy.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. He has also penned recent bestseller Marina Bay Sins. You can find his website right here.

Photos: Football Association of Singapore