Singapore's Lions must think bigger than Bhutan

With the World Cup draw approaching, Neil Humphreys says shrinking ambitions serve no purpose. Singapore needs a Goal 2010-like vision to look beyond their fellow minnows, or what's the point?

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The goalposts keep being moved back. Whether it’s Lions coach Bernd Stange or the Football Association of Singapore, the posts are being treated like relay batons, passed from one apologist to another and carried towards the horizon line.

Positives are being mined in places where they shouldn’t exist.

A 2-0 defeat against Thailand left Stange with no complaints. A 2-2 draw with Guam, a sporting outpost whose national association didn’t exist until 1975, was seen as a step in the right direction. For those who sat through the apathetic torpor, it felt more like a step in something left behind by a stray dog.

But the most pitiful positive came from speculation that the Lions are likely to be thrown into Pot 4 for next week’s draw for the second round of 2018 FIFA World Cup AFC qualifiers. The mighty minnows of Timor-Leste, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Indonesia and the plucky battlers of Bhutan should join Singapore in the pot.

Still, there is a tiny straw to clutch from the other side of the Causeway. Malaysia will be shaken and stirred with the other balls of Pot 5, tossed around with the likes of Bangladesh and Guam – that island of 200,000 residents whose football representatives mostly outplayed Singapore at Jalan Besar.

But all is right with the football world because the Malaysians are still marginally worse than their neighbours. Normal service has resumed. It’s as you were, so go about your business. There’s nothing to see here.

A plucky Guam side almost snatched an upset win against Singapore

The obvious flaw in such a parochial standpoint is normal service hasn’t resumed. It has deteriorated to the point of caricature on both sides of the Causeway. The fact that Malaysia’s malaise is having a more deleterious effect on its national game should not be cause for Singaporeans to bust out the party poppers, throw on Kool and the Gang and celebrate good times.

Singapore football appears to be playing a bankrupting game of poker with its own reputation. I’ll see your defeat against Cambodia’s Under-22s and raise you a loss against Thailand. Well, I’ll see your humbling against Thailand and raise you a humiliating draw against Guam. In that case, I’ll see your Guam debacle and raise you a World Cup group with Bhutan.

Heaven forbid the nation ever falls behind Bhutan. When the latest FIFA rankings are released, the Bhutanese are expected to be right behind Singapore, eagerly grabbing the tails between the Lions’ legs.

It’s worth pointing out that Bhutan has a population of just over 750,000. The residents of Bedok, Tampines and Pasir Ris would almost match the entire kingdom of Bhutan.

Timor-Leste’s population barely exceeds Singapore’s central region and even Turkmenistan’s sizeable territory doesn’t quite reach our density. The city-state boasts more people, greater resources, but no obvious focus or end goals.

Bhutan's two wins against Sri Lanka have propelled them up the rankings

Such a lack of direction allows hazy targets to be quietly recalibrated. Goalposts are pushed back until they disappear from view and slip from the memory. No clear KPIs means less culpability. It’s easier to downplay the roadblocks and blind alleys when there’s confusion on the final destination.

For all its faults, Goal 2010 had an unmistakable vision. Naïve, yes, impractical, almost certainly, but few could argue with its optimism or its focus.

Cynicism was easy, but when the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined his ambition for World Cup qualification after being inspired by the exploits of the multiracial France 1998 side, his boldness was applauded.

Perhaps Goal 2010 was a prominent vehicle for the dubious Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, which delivered a heaving hotpot of foreigners and only a soupcon of talent. For every Aleksandar Duric, there were all the other flops.

Perhaps the infrastructure wasn’t sufficient. Too few seeds were planted to germinate grassroots and the lack of quality school-level coaching and developmental squads all rendered the Goal 2010 project a stillborn dream.

Archrivals Malaysia are not doing much better, but it's scant comfort

But Singaporeans still dared to dream. The goalposts were pushed forward rather than back. Promising footballers were encouraged to shoot for the moon. In the end, they missed, but one or two still fell among the stars (and Singapore won the Suzuki Cup four times).

Now the Lions shoot against Guam and mostly miss. Even Guam, led by pioneering FA president Richard Lei, has a vision, a clear-headed, bright young coach in Gary White and an assertive coaching strategy and direction.

Being placed in a qualifying group above Malaysia is an achievement of sorts, but a myopic one. Keeping up with the next-door neighbours leads to an obsessive, insular existence, like having the best house in the worst street.

Besides, the Bhutanese are moving in. So expectations will probably be reassessed once more. Positives may be desperately sought in sharing a qualification pot with a country whose national sport is archery.

Maybe Lions supporters could adapt the popular terrace change and sing: “We’re by far the greatest team, Bhutan has ever seen.”

But really, Singapore must think bigger than Bhutan. Or the Lions will forever be left behind in their own backyard.