Months later, I met him at a game at Jalan Besar and suggested to him that if would it be OK for me to reproduce that assignment for this blog and credit him as a "guest columnist" and he's fine with it, so here it goes....
"What next for Singapore Football?"
by Terence Ong
Ko Po Hui, 34, remembers the way things were when he first caught the Singapore national team in action as a budding 8-year old, “Things were different back then. We were in the Malaysia Cup and were the darlings of local football fans. The attention was always on the Lions and the National Stadium saw capacity crowd attendances week in, week out.”
|(Pictured above) Singapore (white) vs Selangor (yellow) was the marquee match of the Malaysia Cup|
Since then, Singapore football has seen major overhauls in hopes of carving an identity out for the local football fraternity.
However, it seems as if these changes have not taken flight the way it was supposed to. In the S-League season just passed, attendances sank to an all-time low while none of the trophies went into the cabinets of local clubs.
“Now, even though we have a professional league, we have to fight for fans’ attention against foreign leagues like the English Premier League. Whatever happened to the passion from the days of the Malaysia Cup?”
The S-League was started in 1996 as a footballing platform for Singaporeans after the permanent departure from competitions across the Causeway. Forming the nation’s premier football division then were 8 local football clubs with heartland names to allow fans to bond with it.
Boasting players from the successful Malaysia Cup tournaments alongside foreign players, the league was first split into two stages with the two winners facing off each other before merging into the conventional league season a year later.
The league took flight but could not sustain its growth due to the decreasing standards of football on show while also owing to the burgeoning presence of the major European leagues on the television.
Hence, the league initiated drastic measures such as penalty shootouts at the end of drawn matches as well as inviting foreign entities to enter the league and spice up the quality – all these in an attempt to draw fans back to the terraces.
The penalty shootout scheme was short-lived – lasting only a season before it was scrapped to the relief of fans and pundits alike – while the inclusion of foreign teams experienced varying success.
Since Sinchi FC, a Chinese-based team whose name meant Singapore-China, became the first foreign inclusion into the S-League, a total of eight others have participated in the league. The number of ‘foreign’ teams becomes nine if you include the national Under-23 squad into the mix. Amidst the rojak of teams of different nationalities that is a reflection of Singapore’s population of sorts, there were the good, the bad and the ugly.
Teams such as Brunei DPMM (pictured above their fans in 2009 League Cup Final), Etoile FC and Korean Super Reds lit up the league and drew fans back to the games with attractive football displays that brought with it results. These teams eventually made history as DPMM became the first foreign team to win a local trophy and Etoile the first foreign team to win the S-League title.
The bad were sides such as Dalian Shide Siwu FC and Sinchi FC who both failed to live up to their billings – promising so much yet delivering so little in terms of their footballing standards – while the ugly were teams like Liaoning Guangyuan and Beijing Guo-an Talents, both satellite sides of their parent clubs in the Chinese Super League who were found guilty of match-fixing and on-field brawling in their first seasons respectively.
Ground-breaking season for the wrong reasons
With the league essentially a provider of players to the national team, one fan believes that while the likes of Etoile FC have improved the reputation of the league and increase competitiveness amongst the teams, foreign inclusions are not necessary to the league for Singapore football to improve.
Speaking on the unique situation where not one of Singapore’s trophies had a local club’s name engraved onto it this season, Muhammad Alhafidz had this to say, “It is sad that our local clubs cannot compete with the guile and craft of Etoile FC and Bangkok Glass (pictured above wining the Singapore Cup last year) who were invited to participate in the Singapore Cup. Then again, they were invited to give something our league lacks and the two clubs did just that – bringing a partisan atmosphere to their games and attacking football which won a lot of fans over.”
“Hopefully with that precedence, the local clubs will finally wake up and realize that they need to increase their level of technique and tactical ability in order to compete in the future.”
Alhafidz, an avid fan of local football since the age of 10, feels that with improvement to the league standards, fans will come back to watch good football and the way forward for the local clubs, and essentially Singapore football instead, is not the inclusion of foreign teams but something else.
“What the Football Association of Singapore can do, and they started out a path for it already, is to focus on youth development. They already have the national Under-23 squad competing in the S-League and gaining exposure by playing weekly and that is great, even though their standards are enigmatic at best.”
It has been observed that there are two important qualities Albirex Niigata (S) (pictured above) have in abundance consistently as compared to others – commitment and desire. Being a satellite side of its Japanese parent club which plys its trade in the J-League, Albirex has an evergreen squad consisting of their academy students to whom an S-League season or two counts as their footballing education, after which they return to Japan and be replaced by new academy students.
Unlike foreign players who come here as the finished article, the Japanese players are traditionally more hard-working and as they are playing for their careers, in hope of making the grade in the superior J-League back home, they are more dogged in their desire and it naturally shows in their performances.
Ko sang a similar tune to that – citing the Young Lions class of 2006 who finished in a lofty 3rd position – and believes that the FAS can do much more for youth development than it already is doing.
“The National Football Academy is a good initiative and should be seen as the main focal point of youth development for Singapore football but not as THE ONLY outlet. They should work together with schools and clubs in ensuring that they leave no stone unturned in scouting out potential talents from a young age and encourage them to go through the NFA system.”
Youth development, no?
However, Singaporean parents are known to dissuade their children from pursuing a full-time career in sports, believing that harbouring ambitions of being a sportsperson is an unrealistic source of income due to the plentiful supply of athletes but only so little demand for them due to limited requirements in sports.
A footballer himself who is a goalkeeper with the Newcastle United Singapore Supporters Club football team, Pok Kin Chi believes that parents can be convinced to ‘take the plunge’ of sorts and support their kids if there are any thoughts of being a professional footballer, despite the limited number of professional teams in Singapore.
“Football, or any sports for that matter, is a lucrative market now. In Europe you see players being paid hundreds of thousands a week and there are actually players plying their trades over there. Realistically speaking for Singaporean players, there are a few of our national players plying their trades in Indonesia right now and if Hariss Harun is anything to go by, Singaporeans can be talented enough for Europe as well”.
For the uninitiated, Hariss Harun (pictured above) is the record-holder for the youngest-ever Lion when he won his first cap for Singapore at the age of 16 years and 7 months. Harun was also voted Most Valuable Player at a recent training camp organized by European giants FC Barcelona and was offered a two-week trial with Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua and did well enough to be recalled for a second trial.
It has been well-documented in the media recently that many S-League clubs were barely keeping themselves in the green of business – within the midst of it all, losing their best players to foreign clubs offering better paychecks – and are requesting for the FAS to help them out financially.
Despite the FAS initiating discussions soon with their main sponsor, the Singapore Totalisation Board, about more financial support, Alhafidz is adamant that there are other ways to ensure clubs stay afloat.
“It is imperative that the FAS look to support the local teams more instead of patronizing the foreign entrants. Instead of riding on the Singapore Tote Board all the time and demanding more support from them, why not look towards other companies or maybe even statutory boards for a change? If statutory boards such as Singapore Power can have a team within the semi-professional leagues of Singapore, why not rope other stat boards in and play a part?”
With the looming financial discussions between FAS and their sponsors alongside the 5-year Strategic Plan set aside by the association which underlines youth development as a huge part of it, the future seems bright for Singapore football. But without money to make things tick, how can youth development take place without proper facilities, coaching and equipment?
Alhafidz brought up the possibility of setting up the league with bigger Asian clubs in a feeder-club system just like in Europe. In European football, such a system allows powerhouses such as Manchester United and Real Madrid to send out their youth players to other smaller clubs to gain experience and see if they can be good enough for the rigours of first-team football.
“In return for them using our clubs as platforms for their youth players to play regular football and develop, we could offer our own players and coaches to go over and train with them. If they like what they see from us, they’re welcomed to take a second look. No obligations.”
Look to the future
On the other hand, what the FAS has at its fingertips right now, and can do, is liaise with the Singapore Sports School and the Ministry of Education in changing the perception of parents who might have grown up wanting to be sporting athletes as well. Working with the education body of the Government and tying up links with the Sports School can further close up the gaps in scouting networks and yield more players for the league and ultimately, the national team.
In the inaugural Youth Olympic Games recently – the Singapore youth team, aptly named the Cubs, won the hearts of Singaporeans with a thrilling run in the competition that almost ended with a first-ever Olympic gold medal for the republic.
With the public interested in the Cubs, youth football can surely be tapped on by the association and further developed, with pundits and fans alike predicting a bright future for the Cubs. Imagine the possibilities if the FAS ran an intensive youth development programme modeled after the likes of Dutch champions Ajax Amsterdam, whose emphasis has always been on developing stellar youth talents for its first team.
Ko, the ever-loyal football fan of the Lions, believes that there is a solution closer to home that no one else truly realize until a closer look is cast.
“There is actually a huge talent pool of footballers in Singapore to choose from. At a recent Nike event (to spot local promising talents and send them to Nike Academy for a shot at a professional contract), ex national skipper Nazri Nasir was pleasantly surprised at the turnout and amongst it, the amount of talent Singapore has in its grasp, untapped.”
“All the FAS got to do now is offer a second chance to those who did not make it earlier in their schooling days. If you see someone playing great football at the void decks or street soccer courts, offer them a chance to enter the NFA.”
With a revamped youth development programme in place, who’s to say that by the time 2015 comes along, we will not have more than 12 teams, more locals than before, participating in the S-League.
Keep your fingers crossed.
** Views expressed in GREEN may not necessary be that of the blog owner (except for those quotes attributed to me), thanks**
** Pictures in this entry belong to the blog owner**