Why Singapore must stop playing in kampong puddle

Singapore U23s' match against Japan was a step in the right direction despite a lopsided scoreline, as Neil Humphreys argues that it's time to look beyond being a big fish in a small Asean pond.

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Let’s get the self-loathing out of the way quickly. The defeat was a disgrace. Losing 8-1 to Japan sullied Singapore’s global standing. The Lions are a laughing stock on the world stage, the Falstaff of football. As a society, we bow our heads, pass the whip and self-flagellate ourselves into submission.

The learning curve may be slow, dispiriting and harrowing, but it’s no different to a national lottery. You’ve got to be in it to win it

Okay, are we done? Can we move forward now? Can we acknowledge the hard truths before perhaps tiptoeing away from the kampong puddle?

The Singapore's Under-23 side did not stain the country’s international football reputation when the Japanese Under-22s recently ran them over. Singapore has no international football reputation beyond an addiction to fixing matches (Thanks for that, Wilson Raj).

There is no credibility left to lose. The only way is up.

And that is the direction that coach Aide Iskandar and the Football Association of Singapore are looking towards in arranging friendlies against authentic Asian powerhouses. Being so wrong on the night doesn’t make the bold decision any less right.

Japan U22s handed their Singapore counterparts a footballing lesson. Photo: Weixiang Lim

If the long-term goal remains to lift Singapore football out of the kampong, then the short-term objectives must also be to look beyond the island’s neighbours for sterner challenges. The learning curve may be slow, dispiriting and harrowing, but it’s no different to a national lottery. You’ve got to be in it to win it.

For decades, the general sporting emphasis on the Asean region was indicative of a newish nation finding its feet. Malaysia Cup successes and SEA Games gold medals buoyed a fledgling nation, packed stadiums and sold newspapers. Beating the region’s best on a football field was the limit of Singapore’s horizons in every sense. SEA Games medalists were feted for their golden glories. They were immortalized in newsprint and handsomely remunerated for their medal tallies, which sent out a myopic, materialistic message.

There was decent money to be made from being a big fish in an Asean puddle.

Rather than being a stepping-stone, a SEA Games win or a Malaysia Cup victory became an end itself. As the world moved away, Singapore continued to play in the shrinking puddle and a nation increasingly exposed to global sports spectacles found it less interesting to watch.

So Singapore football is right to think bigger in its fixture scheduling and planning. Move beyond the comfort zone and leave the kampong mindset with the sentimentalists. As the Socceroos discovered, there is nothing to gain from being a lone piranha in a puddle.

Consider Archie Thompson. The Melbourne Victory striker achieved a world record when he scored 13 goals in a 31–0 victory against American Samoa, the highest individual tally in an international football match, back in 2001. Do those 13 goals make Thompson an Aussie immortal? No, they make him a quirky question in a pub quiz.

Archie Thompson, world record holder, is plying his trade in the A-League these days

Mention Thompson’s name to an Aussie soccer cynic and you’ll get a smug comment about the Socceroos playing Mickey Mouse football in the Disney zone of Oceania, knocking off clueless part-timers and villagers in one farcical World Cup qualifying campaign after another.

They frolicked in puddles but drowned in the ocean. The Socceroos always succumbed to opposition beyond their comfort zone when it really mattered, during the World Cup qualifying playoffs.

So they steered a new, braver course towards the stormier waters of the Asian Football Confederation. The rugby scores vanished, but the Socceroos got better. Over time, they scored less, but won more, where it mattered.

Mention Massimo Luongo’s name today and hardened cynics smile at the memory. He didn’t score 13 goals in a single game. He scored one. But quality trumps quantity. He didn’t swim endless laps of a drying puddle. He crossed the ocean. He scored in an Asian Cup Final.

No one really knows Thompson beyond Australia’s borders. Most of Asia knows Luongo’s name. The Socceroos stepped up. They are no longer an amusing Trivial Pursuit question. They are continental winners.

Their way is the only way for Singapore if the sport is serious about its survival. The SEA Games and the LionsXII are useful barometers, a gauge to determine where the nation fares among neighbours. But they are not an end goal.

Irfan Fandi rises above the pack. Photo: Weixiang Lim

In swimming, Singapore has already displayed a farsighted ability to peer beyond the Asean horizon and seek greater glories elsewhere. Football’s future depends almost entirely on its willingness to do the same.

There will be blood. There will be tears after morale-shredding defeats. There will be painful, public post-mortems as Singapore searches for greater challenges against superior technicians such as the Japanese.

But if the only alternative is humdrum fixtures against equally average neighbours – with the odd regional win providing a brief respite against a long-term decline – then the risk must be worth taking.

Sometimes, a silver lining is required to get these things moving. In all that agonizing despair, Irfan Fandi’s minor achievement almost got lost in the wailing. Fandi’s oldest son scored against one of Asia’s most accomplished nations.

It’s not much, but it’s a tiny step in the right direction; the only direction left for Singapore to take. Leave the puddle and dip a toe in the ocean. They’ll always be bigger fish and the risk of a public mauling remains.

But one day, through sustained exposure, someone like Irfan might bite back.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. He has also penned recent bestseller Marina Bay Sins. You can find his website right here.