Neil Humphreys: Why we must lose foreign shirts for Singapore

Forget freedom of choice nonsense, it’s about showing that we’re serious about a football culture here, argues Neil Humphreys.

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It's easy to sympathise with Poh Yi Feng.  He pleased his son, but angered the protective sons of Singapore football.

The Balestier Khalsa midfielder attended the Singapore-Japan World Cup qualifier last week in a Japanese jersey. It’s what his son wanted. Unfortunately, it’s the last thing the local game needed.

Timing is everything and poor Poh finds himself the poster boy for a confused football culture in a desperate search for credibility.

The colour of one’s jersey remains at the heart of an off-colour interpretation of what constitutes football loyalty in Singapore.

Two days after the World Cup qualifier, almost 30,000 Singaporeans returned to the National Stadium wearing the same red jerseys, only on this occasion, they were appropriate. The reds of Manchester United and Liverpool filled the venue as retired legends of both clubs performed to the bizarre strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone and Glory, Glory Man United echoing around the Singaporean venue.

The term ‘legend’ was loosely applied, as several names were less prominent than their waistlines, but they still managed to fill half the stadium, attracting a crowd size marginally smaller than the World Cup qualifier (one can only hope Singapore-Syria gets a similar attendance).

There is a discussion still to be had about a reluctance to turn out in support of the national side despite a giddy willingness to attend the latest gathering of plump retirees struggling to sustain jogging pace in the Kallang humidity.

Or is there? The overriding apathy towards what might be considered a national sporting embarrassment elsewhere merely underlines the extent of the problem.

The reaction was, as is so often the case, a collective shoulder shrug. A masters game between Manchester United and Liverpool pulls almost as many fans through the turnstiles as a pivotal World Cup qualifier between Singapore and Japan? And?

Most of the fans that attended both games essentially wore the same Manchester United and Liverpool jerseys? So what? They’re both red, right?

A Singaporean professional footballer attends the qualifier in a Japanese jersey? What’s your point? It’s freedom of choice and all that.

The widespread indifference and the ongoing inability to acknowledge or even recognise why these are legitimate questions to ask of a local football culture shows why there really isn’t one. Not yet at least.

Former Liverpool midfielder Jari Litmanen signs a United jersey after the Castlewood Battle of the Reds. Photo: K.Pornsakulpaisal

This isn’t really about Poh’s sartorial choices any more than it’s about Robbie Fowler’s waistline. It’s about adding fuel to an unwanted fire, confirming the international perception that Singapore is a football backwater with more money than sense.

Without a vibrant, indigenous football culture of its own, Singapore leaves a vacuum for outsiders to exploit. The island has the infrastructure but not the ingrained connection to its national side or domestic clubs. With the hardware in place, the heart-ware is available to the highest (or any decent) bidder. It’s a little red cash cow for international clubs and corporations, a football country bereft of a local culture, a licence to print money.

This is, of course, the moment when outraged patriots interject, claiming they’ll watch the Lions and the S.League if either produced the kind of football worthy of the ticket price. It’s a counter-argument immediately contradicted by the healthy attendances enjoyed by lower league and non-league clubs elsewhere.

And, really, honestly, the one-paced performance of the masters’ game and the distinct lack of masters in the Manchester United squad would leave the most committed loyalists struggling to defend its aesthetic merits.

The other, perhaps more concerning, response to Poh’s Japanese jersey was, it’s just a shirt, right? What’s the big deal? The need to ask underpins the need to address Singapore’s confused football identity.

R Sasikumar, a former Lion and Tiger Cup-winning hero, defended the obvious importance of the national jersey on his Facebook page and found himself ludicrously defending his defence.

To give an obvious example, West Ham’s Mark Noble, a dependable English pro but not an international, would never wear a Spanish jersey to an England-Spain friendly at Wembley. It’s just not the done thing. Nor would anyone ask why. It’s a given.

It’s a given that the shirt represents a deep, personal and hopefully binding connection between the wearer and his community. It’s a given that the badge, more than just the shirt’s colours, is a symbol of solidarity, a clear distinction, defining the individual. It’s you against him, us against them, the very essence of sporting competition.

When it’s your country, your community, you count, your presence matters. Your voice is vital. In Munich or Manchester, the foreign shirt wearer will always be just a number, a welcome and much coveted number, but a number nonetheless. The foreign shirt makes the wearer an economic digit on a balance sheet, a profit projection for the next financial year. 

The local shirt, the national shirt, is a commitment to something tangible. It provides a stake in one’s community and offers a local football culture a sporting chance of success. It gives hope to the possibility that one day, Singapore’s Lions will be spared the humiliation of walking out at their National Stadium to the tune of You’ll Never Walk Alone, as they did in 2009.

It is so much more than just a shirt.

But the fact that this needs to be spelled out suggests Singapore football still has a long way to go.