Singapore's Football Dilemma: Over Ambition or Impractical Effort

Singapore's Football Dilemma: Over Ambition or Impractical Effort

Back in 1998, then Prime Minister Gok Chok Tong boldly challenged Singapore to qualify for the World Cup finals and set a target of doing so by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

This was termed as ‘Goal 2010’.

A decade later, Singapore was nowhere close to achieving the goal and when it came to the World Cup finals in 2010, this aspiration was dug up and made a mockery of.

Fast-forward to almost another decade later in 2019 and nothing seems to have progressed, with Singapore languishing in 165th place in the Fifa world rankings and having just been knocked out of the ASEAN Football Federation Championship in the group stages yet again.

Just when most other sports in Singapore are witnessing a change of fortunes – Joseph Schooling making waves in swimming and bringing home Singapore’s first Olympic gold, and the rise of Loh Kean Yew who just beaten Lin Dan to win the Badminton Thai Masters to name two – the question begets, “why has Singapore not been able to produce any football stars?”

Image result for loh kean yewImage by Singapore Badminton Open

The failure of Singapore in breeding a young and promising core of footballers is intricately linked to the failure of our National Football League, also known as the Singapore Premier League, which has been dominated by foreign development teams of late rather than local sides (Japan’s Albirex Niigata and Brunei’s DPMM FC are two examples).

To have a successful national team, it is a given to have a competitive national football league for youngsters to develop. Just look at England, Spain, and even the United States.

Despite the recent rebranding of the S. League to the current ‘Singapore Premier League’, and a makeover of the boardroom, attendance figures have barely improved and a drastic lack of commercial support continues.

Poor financial management of clubs such as Woodlands Wellington has resulted in fewer participating teams as more and more teams are sitting out – just a meager nine, of which two are foreign teams.

On top of that, our nation’s current crop of top players have all been plying their trade in other regional leagues, Hariss Harun, Safuwan Bahrudin and Faris Ramli in the Malaysia Super League (MSL), with Baihakki Khaizan, Irfan Fandi, Hassan Sunny and Izwan Mahbud playing in the Thai League.

With so little competition, sponsorships and no atmosphere at the local league games, how can the next generation of footballers (many of which play for the Young Lions in our local league) be expected to develop into regional talents, let alone world-beaters? 

When we look at New Zealand, a not so far off country who have a smaller population (4.5 million) and less financial resources but who stayed unbeaten in the 2010 World Cup Finals, it is clear that there is something wrong with the administration of Singapore football.

There is a lack of access to elite coaching (we are not just talking about the head coach, but the recruitment of other tactical trainers and coaches) in the local scene who can drill the fundamentals into budding talent from young, crucial to their further advancement.

Perhaps the epitome of poor administration on the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) is how, based on a petition by five families, the Singapore Land Authority managed to slap a restriction on the use of Home United Youth Football Academy’s facilities in 2017 – one of the best youth football facilities in the country.

Due to supposed ‘noise levels’, the 12 pitches available cannot be used on weekends and can only be used up to 7pm on weekdays. This highlights the lack of clout the FAS holds, or perhaps the reluctance and lack of effort in enacting positive change in the local football scene. 

If the government wanted to show that their ambition for Singapore football to improve was more than just talk, then it would also have allowed National Service (NS) deferments for the country’s most promising youngsters, to aid their development at the most crucial two years of their career.

However, when push came to shove, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) refused to budge over concerns of how it would set a precedent for other athletes to follow, most recently with the rejection of Ben Davies’ appeal for NS Deferment in order to continue his football development in the UK.

Image result for ben davis singaporeImage by Jose Raymond

The Ministry maintains that the appeal was rejected, as ‘it would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development’.

This is ironic as swimmers such as Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen were granted deferments to train and compete at the Olympic Games, for their own career progression.

The only difference is that the individualistic nature of swimming ensured that their personal glory at the Olympics could translate to national glory in the plausible form of a gold medal for Singapore as well, whereas success for Ben Davies at Fulham cannot necessarily guarantee wins for the Singapore football team, for it is ultimately a team sport and he would have been just one of 11 players on the field.

But Ben Davies is not just any other promising youngster, he is a trailblazer who has become the first Singaporean to sign a professional contract with an English Premier League side. If we do not grant concessions to such outstanding football talents, what kind of message are we sending to other aspiring local football prospects? 

Singapore football really needs a fresh breath of life if it wants to produce the next generation of footballers who are even remotely capable of guiding Singapore to its first World Cup finals.

To do so, we need more consistent government support and a complete overhaul of the current Singapore Premier League. With increasingly positive signs of a football cultural revival through the emergence of many grassroots football organizations and initiative, perhaps tapping on the rich reserves of youths partaking in grassroots football could be a good start in identifying stars for the next generation of Singaporean football. 

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