Professional football in Singapore is dying. No, wait, is it already dead? I’m sure the officials of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) would disagree with me, after all I’m just an outsider looking in for the first time. So lets look at some of the facts:
- Attendances are stagnant at best; most are dropping (despite an average ticket price of just US$4).
- Television viewing numbers as poor as the live attendances.
- GOAL 2010 was an objective 12 years in the making to get the national team to the 2010 FIFA World Cup but the goal was not reached (losing twice to Uzbekistan).
- The country has no footballing reputation left internationally or regionally, except for perhaps match fixing or good old cross-country competition ticket sales politics.
So can the national sport of a country actually be dead? Alright, the perception is that the sport at a senior level is definitely at a near rock bottom point but surely that means that the only way is up? Maybe there is a little life left in the beautiful game that could spark a resurgence? Lets start with a quick history lesson. The Republic of Singapore is a city-state that lies just north of the equator in south east Asia, with a population of about 5.5 million. Since its founding in 1819 it has had a series of sovereign changes from British rule to a Japanese wartime invasion to state independence to a merger with Malaysia. Finally in 1963 Malaysia unceremoniously expelled Singapore for disagreeing on many political and economic issues. Since independence Singapore’s economy has boomed it has become one of the world’s major commercial and cultural hubs.
So can football in Singapore learn something from the business and political world? Following games held between British engineers working in Singapore, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) was founded in 1892 as the governing body that would organize and develop the sport. Over the next 90 years, FAS enjoyed a very stable existence and were fairly successful in the local region, including winning the Malaysia Cup on 23 occasions. However, despite this it took until 1983 for Singapore to have their first footballer to play in Europe (Fandi Ahmed for FC Gronigen in the Netherlands). During these years, politics certainly didn’t help Singaporean football. World War II ceased all competitions, disagreements with Malaysia before and after independence caused seasons of no competitions, not to mention other neighbourly disputes such as competition price fixing and not attending official state dinners.
Having said that, a few years later, two great things did appear in the 1990’s that give true hope to Singapore as a footballing nation. In part due to the political history and in part due to the significant changes seen in European football through the 1970’s and 1980’s i.e. improvements in training methods and the creation of new (more profitable) leagues. The first thing that FAS did was to overhaul the league structures and so in 1996 they created a professional league called the S.League. Followed quickly by a reserve league in 1997, the Prime League.
The second thing that FAS did was a game changer. In 2000 they created the National Football Academy (NFA) with the aim to develop Singapore’s most promising young footballers. With these 2 major steps forward, Singapore should have gone from strength to strength right? Unfortunately not. The NFA has done a great job of churning out youngster after youngster and created some definite talents, such as Baihakki Khaizan (111 caps), Shahril Ishak (118 caps), Adam Swandi (a 19 year old who was signed by FC Metz in France in 2013). However, it hasn’t produced a team of players that can play together on the global stage and take Singapore to a World Cup.
Having many of the young players growing up in the same teams from as early as 13 years old and playing together can only be a good thing (look at the success of the golden generation at Man United), but questions need to be asked of the methods of training and the trainers themselves. Are they up to high-level international standards? More to the point, can FAS actually recruit people at that level? The changes were definitely needed and they give a good base from which to build from but there has to be a level of stability. The S.League has seen 25 different clubs playing in the competition at some point in its 19-year history, many of which have also changed their name. On top of that there is no relegation or promotion from either the S.League or Prime League, and the number of clubs playing each season can fluctuate from 8-12.
With this ‘structure’ is it any surprise that the fan base is dropping? Or that the product doesn’t sell well to investors? As many leagues in Europe have seen (especially the EPL) and as the guys in Soccernomics point out, it’s the external businesses that identify opportunities not necessarily those that are trying to run the clubs or league. I have to wonder whether FAS is seeking input (and I don’t just mean financial) from external sources. So back to our original question – is football dead in Singapore? The FAS are trying to keep it alive but whether or not they want to keep it breathing just within the small island of Singapore or take their football to a wider international level remains to be seen.
Post By Kenny C, BOTN writer based in Asia