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[Annual Review] A Sigh Of Relief

Am I glad the season is over!

It must be one of the most dreadful seasons since my involvement when I breathed a sigh of relief after Albirex Niigata (Singapore) was finally awarded the trophy that accoladed them as the inaugural champions of the revamped professional league aka Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SGPL), despite the confirmation months earlier after their draw against Balestier Khalsa at Toa Payoh to close the 2018 season.

Albirex Niigata (Singapore) established a dynasty in local football
In an attempt to distance from the S.League that was associated with much of the flaws of the old regime, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced the rebranding of the Republic's only professional sporting league as SGPL in a glittering setting at the Singapore Sports Hub (SSH) amid much skepticism from the ground.

Perhaps the only difference between the SGPL and the S.League is the change in the name and the logo and nothing further than those stuff.

The standard of the league did not improve either with a much younger Albirex cruised effortless to secure the title with losing a game and went on to wrap up the regular league season undefeated.

New handicaps did not stop Albirex from bulldozing the rest
"When the revamps were introduced this year, they initially seemed to have a 'side benefit' of limiting Albirex, but it ended up not being an obstacle for them at all." commented local football analyst Tam Cheong Yan on the seemingly effortless campaign trail of the Yuhua-based club.

Added Tam:"The fact that they (Albirex) won the league even before the EPL (English Premier League) season began means they had certain foundations our local clubs don't have."

Even with encouraging figures revealed by the league authority to The Straits Times in early November, we are not sure if the rebranding did help to boast the turnouts at games which were largely scheduled on late afternoon on weekends in order to allow fans ample of time to reach home to watch their favourite EPL matches on television.

The launch of the Singapore Premier League (SGPL) at National Stadium 
The changes implemented alongside the rebranding of league into SGPL hardly struck a chord with the fans, based on the poll conducted on this blog's Facebook page which asked if things improved following the rebranding.

"No way will the league improve with these rules, develop youths?" said Ong Qizong who voiced his opinions in the said poll by referring to the controversial "age quota" ruling that was implemented this season.

"A U23 league will be better (but) standard of football must be raised before the league can be a success (with) good quality foreign players, not journeymen." he added.

Nonetheless, there are those who think the "age quota" is a good move for the SGPL with the emerging of several young players, such as the Suzliman brothers who earned their Lions debuts weeks ago under interim national coach Fandi Ahmad during the preparation of AFF Suzuki Cup.

Zulfadhmi Suzliman made his Lions debut
One of them is Foo Miao Chan who felt it is a good sign to see "more youngsters are playing on the highest platform".

Echoed those words was Muhd Salehuddin, although he is in an opinion that these youngsters should be in first team based on merit.

"At least, more youth (players) got the chance to play. But I still believe to be in first eleven, (it) should be based on performance not a reserve slot." opined Salehuddin who was the first to leave his views on the poll which saw an overwhelming majority voted NO.

Furthermore, things could not be helped with the reduced coverage by the mainstream media due to the restructuring in both Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp.

Looking back at it, I think the league authority made a miscalculated move in such a hastily fashion to rebrand the league to SGPL.

The way the rebranding/revamping of the league was almost similar to how the S.League was launched in 1996.

With almost ground zero experience in every aspect of running a professional club, those amateur or semi-pro setups were elevated to a status which they were simply clueless of.

Even after two decades of being "professional", many clubs are still not having the means to stay afloat independently without the lifeline from the FAS.

Clubs are still yet to be financially sustainable on their own
Instead of automatically granting the rights to incumbent clubs to be part of the revamped SGPL this year, the league authority should open to all interested clubs in the local league pyramid (SGPL, NFL, etc.) to bid for a license to be part of the revamped league in maybe three to five years down the road.

During the transition period of three to five years, clubs should work towards the goal to fulfil the criteria under the "National Club Licensing System" - a little-known licensing scheme which outlined governance criteria for every local club in order to be accredited under the "AFC Club Licensing Regulations" to play in tournaments organized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Nonetheless, it is pointless to make this sort of suggestion when things are already well underway and hope things will improve as time goes by (hopefully).

Which is why I would like to reiterate the feasibility of having a "post season playoff" for the subsequent SGPL seasons, it was ridiculous to see the White Swans crowned as the champions so early and had the rest fought for continental spots like leftovers (since Albirex are not eligible to represent Singapore in AFC club tournaments), weird scenario indeed and uniquely Singapore.

In the absence of promotion/relegation system in SGPL, the "post season playoff" is proposed with objective to inject that bit of motivation, competitiveness among the teams to ensure the competition's intensity can last longer unlike what we seen this year when the title race was ended prematurely in July.

Such "post season playoff" can be modelled from those franchise-based North American sporting leagues like the NBA, NFL and ABL (Asean Basketball League) - the regional basketball league where the conventional promotion/relegation league system do not exist.

Is a "post-season playoff" like ABL's able to inject excitement into SGPL?
However, there are still some reservations if this "post season playoff" is workable for local football.

"This is a makeshift patch that wouldn't quite address the fact that the rest of the teams aren't competitive enough." countered @singnoname in responding to a tweet message I posted using @bolasepako.

He added:"That would generally have been a good idea. But it wouldn't do much if most teams are uncompetitive, like now.

"... We can't come up with stopgap, temporary solutions though. It's already a patchwork league."

"The medium-term and long-term plan must be to improve our foundations, not create a false sense of competitiveness based on poor structures." further elaborated by @singnoname in my follow up with him via messages.

Ride on the crest of confidence with some positive friendly results, national interim coach Fandi Ahmad led the Singapore national team to AFF Suzuki Cup with the mission to exorcise the ghosts of previous two campaigns under German Bernd Stange and V Sundram moorthy.

The Lions got off to a good start with a one-nil win over Indonesia at Kallang before a sloppy mistake saw them conceded a defeat on the same scoreline to the Filipinos at Bacolod days later.

Following a thumping win over Timor Leste at Kallang on 21st of November, the men in red saw their campaign ended in Bangkok where they were swept aside three goals to none by Thailand.

"Abang" managed to restore that bit of lost pride to the Lions 
While the team failed for the third straight attempt to advance to the knockout stage of the prestigious regional tournament, the question being if the national association is ready to place their faith on the local football icon to guide the national team on a permanent basis after some inspiring performances during the biennial regional competition that won a number of fans over?

"I believe Fandi should be given the job (as the national coach) on permanent basis based on the team's performance (in the Suzuki Cup)," said a fan named Iskandar whom I spoke to is in favour of having the former Lions skipper stay on.

"We can see how different the team played in the recent tournament, as compared to the last two tournaments (under Stange and Sundram) which I think it's all down to how Fandi inspired the players in difficult time like this."

The Lions claimed 2W 2L in recent Suzuki Cup campaign
Whilst some of the media acknowledged the works of the 56-year-old, they opted to be on the pragmatic side of things.

"Fandi may have restored some dignity after a terrible six-year stretch, but Singapore should not indulge in too much self-congratulation. The rebuilding work has only just begun." said a Yahoo Singapore article in its summary of thoughts on the campaign.

The New Paper raised a valid point by asking if real improvement was made when it wrote "... , with the bar having dropped so low in the last two years, what's harder to quantify is whether the Lions have improved enough."

At the end of the day, all speculations were put to a rest when it was decided a foreign coach will be placed on the hot seat and the former Singapore captain will reprise as head coach of youth focusing on next November's SEA Games in Manila..


  1. Don’t need to make new excuses for under performing local clubs. Either remove all foreign clubs from the league or ensure allow more foreign players in the local clubs. The different in standard there to see, year in year out.

    We also got to look at the budget that available if e clubs can get the better imports. How this Japanese club is run here, is good setup. But end of the day, the professionalism of their players that shine thru.


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