Singapore Football: How To Raise The Standard

The past few weeks have been pretty eventful, albeit negative, for Singapore’s football scene. First came the double World Cup qualifying defeats to Japan and Syria that left Singapore with only the consolation prize of Asian Cup qualification to fight for. Then Pahang dealt a huge dent in LionsXII’s Malaysia Cup hopes with a  4-1 first-leg thrashing, before the Malaysian FA announced that Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Singapore would end this year. So here are some ideas to raise the standard of Singapore football:

Disband the S-League

Let’s be honest, the S-League has been a failure for a long time now – drawing pitiful spectator numbers and even lesser sponsorship money. Basically, the S-League is dead. Singapore is too small a country geographically for any neighbourhood or town to truly affiliate with their ‘local’ football clubs. Those from Jurong do not necessarily associate themselves as ‘Jurongers’, and one would only really affiliate to teams that represent the whole nation.

With this lack of partisan support for local teams, there is little obligation to attend their matches ‘live’, which means clubs generate little match day income, and low audience numbers generate little sponsorship revenue for individual clubs and the league in general. The attempts at reinvigorating the league with foreign talents has been admirable, but with little financial support, local clubs waste precious resources on unknown foreigners, usually of low-quality, such that neither these foreigners’ reputation nor skill can entice more fans to games or improve the overall level of the league.

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foreigners have not improved singapore’s football

With these in mind, there is a greater need for the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to focus and concentrate local talent as well as resources and sponsors, while eliminating the reliance on foreigners. This can only be done by disbanding the local league. The current Prime League and schools competition (ITE-Polytechnic, A Division) will be the main pools to scout and spot talent. They will act as the base in which the four representative sides – mentioned in the next point – can choose and pick from, possibly similar to a draft system much celebrated in the United States’ NBA and NFL.

More Representative Sides

As mentioned, Singapore’s lack of club affiliation would mean supporters can only rally behind clubs that represent the country as a whole. Singapore’s Malaysia Super League (MSL) representative LionsXII was a success story, even as they are not going to be part of it anymore. The team restored the historic causeway rivalry, allowing them to draw in much larger crowds to their games, with the most hardcore fans even willing to make plans to travel to various Malaysian states to support their side. The FAS should use the LionsXII as an example to improve the state of affairs in local football.

With the long-mooted ASEAN Super League (ASL) likely to take flight in 2016, there are still some doubts whether one or two teams per nation would compete. There will definitely be one team representing Singapore in the ASL, and should it only be one regional representative, that team should surely be based at a top-notch venue, like the Sports Hub (capacity: 55,000) or even the Marina Bay Floating Platform (capacity: 30,000) should the former be exclusive to the national team. Should neither be deemed appropriate for Singapore’s ASL representatives, the FAS would be best served to consider Tampines Stadium (capacity: 4,000) to cater for supporters staying in the East of Singapore. Further, for a possible second ASL team from Singapore, this team must be based at the opposite end in Jurong Stadium (capacity: 6,000), as this will reach supporters staying in the West, which is the furthest away from the centrally-located main stadiums.

The FAS might also consider sending a representative side to quality ASEAN leagues like in Thailand, and perhaps one for Indonesia – should the Indonesian FA get their act together.

With these four representative sides’ home stadiums in four separate areas of this small country, each of these areas will have their own ‘national’ team to support. Supporters from each area can call each team their own, yet have no conflicting affiliation when supporting other teams, as all these sides represent Singapore as a whole. With the likelihood of drawing in a constant stream of supporters much higher than before, these four teams will be more attractive for sponsors and as a result, more money will be poured into the local football scene.

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the type of support s-league clubs and potential sponsors could only dream of

This increased resources can then be focused on the development of the heartland stadiums to be used for these regional representatives. Tampines, Jurong, Woodlands and even Jalan Besar Stadium could use a massive facelift – with a minimum of 10,000 seats, four stands surrounding the pitch, amenities and adjacent shopping malls and retail outlets just to name a few – to attract even more fans to come by and support their teams. It all adds to the football match day experience, one which is severely underestimated in Asia and sorely lacking in Singapore. Simply put, watching football ‘live’ should not be restricted to the one and a half hour of match action, but should be more of going to a game and taking in the whole atmosphere.

Flog Our Best Abroad

With our resources more focused and talents more concentrated, the FAS must then look to push our best players abroad. Abroad meaning beyond the ASEAN shores. At the moment, only veterans like goalkeeper Hassan Sunny (Thailand’s Army United), midfielder Shahril Ishak, centre back Baihakki Khaizan (both Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim II) as well as Hariss Harun (MSL side Johor Darul Ta’zim). The much talked about loan move for Safuwan Baharudin only resulted in a six-match stay at A-League side Melbourne City.

The Malaysian and Thai leagues may be a step up from the local S-League, but it is still simply not the level required for Singapore’s top footballing talents. Even with youngsters’ Adam Swandi’s two year stint at French club FC Metz’s academy and footballing legend Fandi Ahmad’s two sons’ – Irfan and Ikhsan – young globetrotting football careers, the number of current professionals playing abroad is still very few and far between. Even Irfan has controversially put football aside in order to finish his two years of National Service first – yet another point of contention.

Similar to the deal for Safuwan’s A-League stint, the FAS should continue to flog the best local talents to overseas clubs, more realistically the A-League, J-League, K-League and even second-tier European leagues, like Belgium, Portugal, Netherlands and Scotland. The FAS can use the additional funding received from the absence of an ailing S-League and the lack of a need to heavily support the four representative sides – due to the increased sponsorship money – to subsidise these players’ moves abroad, from accommodation to travel costs. Further still, top young talent willing to go overseas should receive sports scholarships to allow them to study during their time at a foreign club, possibly getting a part-time education qualifications like a degree in the process. This would present professional football as a viable career for even the most conservative Singaporeans.

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jdt II duo shahril and baihakki are leading the way for young aspiring footballers

The FAS needs to aim to have at least 2 to 3 Singapore footballers move abroad annually. Only with such foreign exposure and experience, as well as constant improvement competing in higher quality leagues will Singapore truly be competitive beyond the ASEAN region. And who knows, a win over the likes of Japan could be on the cards, or even a norm soon enough.

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