Neil Humphreys: Good riddance to the Malaysia Super League

Thanks FAM, you’ve forced Singapore’s dinosaurs to forget the past and look to the future of its domestic game, says Neil Humphreys.

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Singapore football just turned into the climatic scene of the original Planet of the Apes movie.

The autocratic Dr Zaius, an intelligent, considered ape but ultimately responsible to his own kind, orders a cave that represents ancient history to be blown up.

He’s the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

A younger, naïve ape, Lucius, can only think of the short-term and the inexplicable damage that the explosion will cause to his community.

He’s the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).

In the crucial scene, Lucius, aka FAS, cries, “What about the future?”

With a rueful, slightly patronising, nod of the head, Dr Zaius, aka FAM, replies, “I may just have saved it for you.”

The dynamite is detonated, the cave is blown to smithereens and the LionsXII are booted out of the Malaysian Super League.

Coach Fandi Ahmad's journey with the LionsXII is coming to an end

And it’s apocalypse now, the end of the world as we know it. Cue the REM soundtrack, the sabre-rattling commentaries on both sides of the Causeway, the indignant cries of Singaporeans mashed up with giggling Malaysian ultras.

Or, it might just be the making of Singapore football, the only silver lining to be found from the boggy quagmire of mediocrity, a final shot at domestic salvation, the last chance to save what’s left of the S.League.

Because, and this is the inconvenient truth, the LionsXII project failed.

It might just be the making of Singapore football, the only silver lining to be found from the boggy quagmire of mediocrity, a final shot at domestic salvation...

- Humphreys

Of course the players and coaching staff didn’t fail. A couple of silver baubles – the 2013 MSL title and this year’s Malaysia FA Cup – acted as welcome sticking plasters, but the LionsXII didn’t staunch the bleeding.

If anything, the LionsXII accelerated the hemorrhaging, quickening the local game’s demise, sucking what was left of the S.League’s lifeblood and donating it to Malaysian states that neither wanted nor particularly needed it.

When the FAS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with FAM in 2011, allowing Harimau Muda to play in the S.League while the LionsXII headed north, Singapore’s reasoning was obvious.

A flat-lining sport required a sudden injection of Malaysia Cup spirit to bring back a pulse, relying on archaic rivalries to manufacture interest in the Lions. The superior competition would act as a conveyor belt for nascent talent, taking them from a housing estate field to the National Stadium, via the MSL.

It didn’t happen.

Singapore’s four AFF Championships came in 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012. Apart from the 2012 title, which served as a final hurrah for Raddy Avramovic and his band of devoted brothers, the others predated the country’s return to Malaysian football.

In reality, experienced S.League personnel delivered all four titles, secured by men who set their sights beyond the Causeway, footballers who directly benefited from regular, combative competition on the home front.

Singapore's last Suzuki Cup triumph came in 2012. Photo: FAS

The birth of the LionsXII did not witness a rebirth of the national side. Instead the last three years have largely been a period of stagnation, both at under-23 and senior levels.

The SEA Games disaster, on home soil, was matched by the tactical caution and physical timidity of Bernd Stange’s Lions. Not only did Singapore not improve technically or tactically on the international stage, they appear slower and lighter than their S.League-trained predecessors.

The return to Malaysia championed a return to kampong football and a big fish in a puddle mindset; a backward, myopic interpretation of the nation’s standing.

If all else fails, take the low road across the Causeway. While the Thais look beyond the region, Malaysia and Singapore still can’t stop looking at each other.

The move forced supporters to do the same. They scrambled upon the new bandwagon, filling it quickly and causing much back-slapping among officials without acknowledging how small the bandwagon really was.

The fans are easy to pick out at Jalan Besar. Some of the red-shirted drum beaters, uplifting in their enthusiasm, are from the now-defunct Tanjong Pagar United. Others came across from the Young Lions. A few defected from the uniformed camps of Home United and Warriors FC.

The point being, the Malaysia Cup return succeeded in bringing existing fans under one roof and centralising the support base under the LionsXII banner, but many turned their backs on the S.League in the process.

How many new fans were won over by the LionsXII is harder to gauge and a moot point now in any case. The sticking plaster has been mercilessly ripped off. Ironically, the Malaysians are now forcing Singapore into serious introspective analysis. They can no longer use their rivals as a crux.

The S.League offers the only shot at redemption. Football officials fear that the dying competition will make a monkey out of them, but it made international trophy-winning men out of its players in the past.

Four times.

How a reconfigured local league might look without Harimau Muda is a discussion to have in the coming weeks, but it’ll look a damn sight better with a sprinkling of returning LionsXII stars and the kind of investment and exposure enjoyed by the Malaysia Cup representatives for the last four years.

The S.League may still fail, but the LionsXII project was never going to succeed.

A future based on the past will only build a Jurassic world destined for extinction.