The mantle had slipped, but Singapore is roaring back as a global football player
When I first arrived in Singapore in mid-2015 to begin working in the football media industry with FourFourTwo, the country was enjoying a golden period of attracting top-shelf talent to its shores.
Almost from the moment I collected my luggage and headed towards the Changi Airport taxi stand I began hearing stories of the day in late 2014 a 22-year-old Neymar ran rings around a hapless Japanese outfit at the National Stadium, helping himself to four goals as he continued his emergence as one of the sport’s pre-eminent talents.
These are the type of events that continued to reinforce Singapore’s standing as a major financial and sporting hub
That came just two months after Italian mega-club Juventus had christened the new stadium in footballing terms with a 5-0 masterclass over a Singapore Selection.
Even some public criticism from Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri over the state of the new pitch at a stadium that had only opened its doors weeks earlier did little to dampen the goodwill and pride the country was feeling. Or so I was told.
These are the type of events that get the world’s attention and continued to reinforce Singapore’s hard-earned standing as a major financial and sporting hub, despite its diminutive stature.
A little over six months after Brazil had graced the Sports Hub, my first major task was helping finalise FourFourTwo's preparations for the four-team Barclays Asia Trophy set for July 2015.
In that event, mighty Arsenal Football Club – fresh off a second successive FA Cup triumph – along with Everton, Stoke City and the Singapore national team were the next acts to grace Singapore’s newest and certainly grandest sporting stage.
On that occasion – along with the standard, global interest in footballing ornament Arsene Wenger, whose press conference at the Grand Hyatt was standing-room-only and who was still some time away from the ‘Wenger Out’ banners which are now his constant companion – Petr Cech was the man of the moment.
Having made the switch from London rivals Chelsea just over two weeks earlier, Cech was the focus of the world’s footballing media, many of whom made the journey from Europe all the way to Singapore to see him now donning Arsenal red for the first time, rather than Chelsea blue.
Tens of thousands packed into the stadium for the matches themselves, Arsenal even launched their new away kit at the Esplanade in a globally streamed event, and Singapore was heralded for another successful staging.
But then, just as the momentum was enjoying unmistakable pace, something surprising happened.
It all went deathly quiet.
While Australia, the United States and China shared the spotlight of global giants the calibre of Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool as part of the International Champions Cup (ICC), Singapore was left twiddling its thumbs and staring at the floor.
The fact 2016 was a European Championship year was a minor factor, while the pre-booking of the National Stadium for the National Day parade also made it virtually impossible to host such luminous names.
But the fact remained momentum and opportunity had been lost.
Fast-forward to today, however, and the Republic is well and truly back on track.
And in some style.
It started with the announcement that German behemoths Bayern Munich, still likely Premier League champions Chelsea – although they are wobbling – and Italian royalty Inter Milan would be bringing the ICC to Singapore in July for the first time.
Not just that, the ICC and Singapore Tourism Board have signed a lovely four-year partnership, so football fans can dare to dream about the other clubs that could soon be heading this way between now and 2020.
It is refreshing to once again be looking forward to some world-class football and the type of stories and experiences true fans covet
But the icing on this freshly baked cake, surely, was the confirmation this week of the poorly held secret that Argentina would be featuring in Singapore in June.
They are undeniably a star-studded outfit those White and Sky Blues, but only one name really needs mentioning and that, of course, is Lionel Messi.
If a retired Ronaldinho gets mobbed at Changi Airport, as he did for a brief visit late last year, the reception Messi will receive will be bordering on Bieber-esque.
Wenger, Cech, Andrea Pirlo, Theo Walcott and even Neymar were great spectacles, but none of them match Messi for global sporting adoration.
Instead of toasting footballing deities in my adopted home over the past two years, the main football stories in Singapore have revolved around the struggling S.League and national teams and, more recently, the horribly murky FAS elections about to be held for the first time.
It is refreshing, and a return to form, to once again be looking forward to some world-class football action and the type of stories and experiences true fans covet.
Tickets for both the match between Argentina and Singapore on June 13 and the International Champions Cup are now on sale from www.sportshubtix.sg.