Rocky path looms with Singapore football at crossroads

Local football is stuck in an attritional war where no one wins and everyone loses, but Gary Koh warns that things could get worse if a solution isn't found soon.

The scenes played out in Singapore football over the past year and a half have been far from pleasant looking, as the storm clouds gathered pace around Jalan Besar Stadium.

Poor international results, abysmal performances from Malaysian league representatives LionsXII, decreasing attendances in the S.League and Malaysia Super League on our soil, contractual issues, the long depressing list of woes – some of them longstanding – continued unabated.

The perfect storm finally erupted on Monday last week when the conflicting factions inside the local football fraternity came out swinging from their respective corners over the state of the game in a heated closed-door meeting at FAS headquarters.

In one corner are the proponents of ensuring the local professional league, the S.League, continues to function despite its widely-acknowledged ailing status. Facing them at the other end are the protagonists who are keen to ensure interest in local football is sustained through the various means possible, even if some come at the expense of the other concerns.

The seeds for that fateful explosion of underlying tensions were first sown in July 2011 when the Football Association of Singapore suddenly announced their return to Malaysian football after a hiatus of 18 years.

This caused fractures within the fraternity as everyone was left wondering about the direction of Singapore football, especially with the S.League that was perpetually struggling to gain traction with the public and gradually appearing to be in terminal decline.

When the league announced the appointment of a new head and introduced a series of revamps for the umpteenth time shortly after the return to Malaysian club football, the local football arms race commenced in earnest. 

It was an attritional battle of principles and interests as the struggle between keeping the faith in the declining backyard league and generating a short-term revival of interest in local football through a newly-created set-up to compete in Malaysia ensued.

While the S.League was never given the favourites tag to prevail from the start, the pro-Malaysia camp appeared to be coasting to victory in the first two years of LionsXII with the 2013 Malaysia Super League championship triumph under V. Sundramoorthy.

But poor results in Malaysia set them back to square one alongside the pro-local faction, with atrocious international results this year across the national teams fuelling the friction.

The futures of players and officials across the board remain uncertain, with the majority having to look for other jobs to make ends meet. Such is the extent of their disillusionment of the state of the game that football lovers in Singapore are encouraging their children to seek alternative aspirations and ambitions outside the Beautiful Game.

It was not just only the S.League that suffered. Some players who exited the LionsXII set-up would also find themselves in the lurch. Out, and no way back in, save for a lucky few, as the factions battled behind-the-scenes relentlessly.

The long road ahead

Following Monday’s showdown, Singapore football is now in a Catch-22 situation. Scrap the dysfunctional S.League and hundreds of local players and officials will be out of a job overnight; stop participating in Malaysia and the remaining fans might not bother to support the same heroes in a national team jersey.

Either path demands a huge sacrifice, and the winning party at the end of this long struggle will have their work cut out in putting their imprint on local football.

Furthermore, the clock simply cannot be turned back to pre-1995. The local football scene has evolved to such an extent that countless livelihoods are at stake in this industry, especially players and coaches, and so much money has been invested, even though the amount remains far behind those from our Southeast Asian neighbours.

Enough is enough, screamed the long-suffering fans as they vented their anger via keyboards as events took a toll on their patience and faith in the local game. That said though, where next for Singapore football?

However unpopular it is right now, it might be better to keep Singapore's professional league, but with clubs to be utilised as nurseries where better football-trained players in the future can emerge and surpass the likes of Irfan Fandi, Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin.

The road is long and winding, the process of recovery is excruciatingly painful, and local fans, especially the older ones, will still hanker for the golden eras of the Choo Seng Quee-trained 1970s Singapore national side and the 1993 and 1994 Dream Teams.

But will all be lost forever in Singapore football, especially in a battle where no one wins even though there is going to be a victor? Just imagine a football-loving Singapore without even a national team to call our own as a result of this public local football war.

That, my friends, might be the real tragedy.