Why Tampines going home really matters

The S.League’s only hope of survival is a last-gasp effort to reconnect with the clubs’ heartlands and accept that local football cannot sustain itself. It needs to be part of a larger, communal hub, argues Neil Humphreys...

Kids sat on parents’ laps. Punters peeked through gaps in the fence. Supporters settled for restricted views at the KFC downstairs.

There were yellow shirts and balloons in every direction as a town came out to watch its football team.

Tampines Rovers had gone home. Football had gone home.

And the S.League was offered a teasing glimpse of its only, viable future.

The official attendance figures appeared massaged, but in the wrong direction on this occasion

Make local football actually ‘local’ and maybe the locals will come.

That’s a lot of locals. Just as there were at Tampines Hub. In fact, a crowd of 4,676 all crammed into Tampines’ new home stadium for their 2-0 victory against Brunei DPMM.

Not for the first time, the official attendance figures appeared massaged, but in the wrong direction on this occasion.

The figures didn’t count those eagle-eyed spectators watching from behind the glass of the adjacent public library, or from inside a tuition class and what looked like a Pilates session on the ground floor.

The library opposite the stands. Photo: Neil Humphreys

Then there were Tampines’ resident shoppers, perhaps oblivious that an S.League match was taking place, or even that the Stags had swapped the concrete anachronism of Jurong West and gone native.

Clutching shopping bags, they hovered around the escalators, or by the lifts, or inside KFC, and watched Shahdan Sulaiman knock in his 82nd minute spot-kick to add to Shakir Hamzah’s impudent chip in the first half.

But Our Tampines Hub is the S.League’s only realistic shot at salvation

They found the game by accident, but stayed nonetheless, thanks to a bizarre melding of sports and retail therapy that, quite frankly, could only happen in Singapore.

But Our Tampines Hub is the S.League’s only realistic shot at salvation.

In the eyes of the misty-eyed purist, Tampines’ new stadium looks like a football abomination.

Jalan Besar’s ugly, imperious wall behind one of its goals was dispiriting enough. The Stags have three.

The pitch is surrounded on three sides by buildings that house a public library, exercise studios, shops and restaurants.

More than 4,000 turned up on Friday

Like wearing 3D glasses for the first time, there was a period of adjustment. It wasn’t a case of “Toto, we’re not in Kansas” anymore, but Toto, we’re not in Kallang anymore, much less Wembley, the Maracana, the Nou Camp or any traditional venue with a passing resemblance to a football stadium.

The Stags’ new home is a community centre and shopping mall, with a football stadium attached on the end, rather like an appendix.

Tampines attracted 5,000 people because it was local, not because it was free

Not everyone is aware of its existence or even what its purpose is and the rest of the place would certainly survive without it.

But more than 5,000 people turned up to suggest that today’s appendix could be tomorrow’s beating heart of the community.

Cynics must of course point out that the opening fixture at the new venue was free to all, which misses the point entirely.

S.League ticket freebies are depressingly easy to access. The supply has long existed, but the demand was rarely there.

Tampines attracted 5,000 people because it was local, not because it was free.

Tampines never felt as warmly welcomed at home as they did on Friday

At half-time, a well-dressed banker sheepishly admitted that he was a Tampines resident and an S.League football fan, but this was his first Stags game in years.

It wasn’t that his loyalty didn’t stretch to Jurong West, Tampines’ previous, temporary venue. His time didn’t. And nor should it.

Loyalty, identity and affiliation begin at home, a painful reality that DPMM and Albirex Niigata (S) are still struggling with, despite their best intentions.

The S.League isn’t in a position to expect fans to trek from one side of the island to the other

The S.League remains a nascent football league, comparatively speaking, and isn’t in a position to expect fans to trek from one side of the island to the other for ‘home’ games to face opponents who are about as ‘home’ as E.T.

Unlike other, established leagues — many of which have more than a hundred years of organic, communal growth over Singapore — the S.League still hasn’t established a psychological foothold within its population.

Unlike other countries, the S.League cannot just build it and expect them to come. It has to build a stadium right on the doorstep, engage with residents and hope sufficient numbers take the bait.

Surrounding a stadium with books and burgers might be unseemly, but if a public library and a KFC must traverse the pitch perimeter to ensure its existence, then purists should accept the compromise – or wake up and watch the tumbleweed at other S.League venues.

Random shoppers stopped by to watch the spectacle. Photo: Neil Humphreys

In a country with a retail culture, but not a sporting one, Singaporeans flock to malls and fast food outlets as a matter of routine.

Football stadiums? Not so much.

But various government agencies have colluded to bring the two together at Our Tampines Hub, creating a series of surreal, uniquely Singaporean images.

In short, Tampines’ new home is weird and far from wonderful

In the English Premier League, supporters need to fork out thousands of pounds for the privilege of watching the game behind glass in an air-conditioned, executive box.

In Tampines, they just need a library card and a sense of daring.

On more than one occasion, the ball clattered against the (hopefully) reinforced glass of the adjacent library. The crowd cheered every time (Stags fans brought a sense of humour to their homecoming, too.)

Should a library window eventually succumb to a misplaced Fahrudin Mustafic clearance, let us hope the shattered pane is greeted with a standing ovation.

In short, Tampines’ new home is weird and far from wonderful.

The artificial surface was comically awful, with clumps of those tiny black rubber balls being kicked into the air with every pass.

Chunks of the artificial pitch flying into the air

At one point, Daniel Bennett appeared reluctant to pass back to his keeper. He couldn’t trust the bobbly surface.

The Stags’ home venue is possibly the only venue in world football where supporters can watch a game, a tuition class, a Pilates session and a public library storytelling all at the same time, whilst secretly hoping that one of the many surrounding windows get smashed.

The place couldn’t be any more weirdly Singaporean if the landlords replaced the corner flags with Merlions (don’t give them any ideas, please).

The S.League should aim to be weird like Tampines

But Our Tampines Hub might just work precisely because it is weirdly Singaporean, acknowledging the harsh reality that an S.League club cannot survive as a dislocated, separate entity.

If it needs to be attached to the social umbilical cord of shops, study and makan, then so be it. Most of all, an S.League club must be an intrinsic part of the community it supposedly represents.

They wrote a song about it for good reason. Football’s coming home. It’s coming home to Tampines.

Now it needs to come home to Woodlands, Tanjong Pagar and whatever’s left of the island’s old powerhouses.

Photos: S.League (Unless stated otherwise)