To Save Singaporean Football, the S. League Needs to Die
Top image credit: Fancycrave/Unsplash

Note: Although the S League was recently renamed the Singapore Premier League, we’re referring to it by its old name for reasons of familiarity. 

Twenty years ago, I had a dream.

Seated by my parents’ ankles in front of the TV, I watched then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong tell the nation that by 2010, Singapore would qualify for the World Cup. From that day on, I believed.

Truly, I believed that one day Baihakki Khaizan, Aleksandar Duric, Noh Alam Shah and co. would triumph over the best players the football world had to offer.

Twenty years later, the innocent boy who sat excitedly in front of the TV is now a grown man that knows better. My dream has long since died, though whenever the World Cup makes its quadrennial appearance, a faint glimmer of banished hope reopens old wounds.

That pain ends today. Because I’ve realised that Singapore needs to let go of the beautiful game and let the S-League die.

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There’s no denying that Singaporeans love football.

We support English teams. We discuss the Champions League. We buy jerseys emblazoned with foreign crests.

But actually going out to play? Only the occasional weekend kickabout remains of the football culture of our youth.

Somewhere along the way, we grew up. As life happened, our priorities changed and the passion for the sport fizzled out. Eventually, for many, a cold adieu was bid altogether.

We handed our distaste to our children and they never got to fully experience the joy and camaraderie football could bring. Success in Singapore was defined in the classroom. Not on a field.  

“It’s for their own good,” we told ourselves as we prepared them for adulthood.

As a result, street soccer courts and void decks, once the second home to sweaty, happy children, are now lifeless reminders of a time gone by.

For a country known for its perseverance, it seems then that with the failure of reaching our 2010 World Cup goal, we collectively gave up on ever making it to football’s greatest competition.

In fact, in the last ten years, the national team has failed to deliver much of anything, even making history in 2017 for failing to win any matches that year. It resulted in us reaching our lowest FIFA ranking ever of 173rd.

A subsequent speech was made by PM Goh in 2001, in which he said, “Even if we do not succeed in 2010, in the process, we will raise the standard of the game in Singapore. And we can try again in 2014. Eventually, we will get there.”

Looking back, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at his optimism.

We clearly stopped trying a long time ago.

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For some reason, football still exists in Singapore. But why? Why did we not pour our resources into another sport like tennis and give up on football entirely?

I’ll tell you why.

Singapore has always been known as an Asian miracle, a modest fishing village turned economic powerhouse, symbol of first-world prosperity. But we’ve always been lacking in the two areas that exemplify a country’s soft power: sport and the arts.

Football then, provides a path to elevating our country’s place in the eyes of the world (although with the success of the Trump-Kim summit, it’s arguable if we need to keep trying so hard).

At the same time, the Football Association of Singapore, has let football down spectacularly. Our domestic S-League, (what I’m sure started out as a great idea for domestic football) is in shambles.

Constantly plagued by usual problems such as dwindling attendance figures, a lack of funding, and limited sponsorship deals, it’s a wonder they still exist.

In allowing its continued existence, the FAS has inadvertently turned the league into a festering cauldron of complacency and unfulfilled potential.

The S-League seems to send the message that it’s okay to be average and at most, slightly better than the weekend warrior. Over the years, the FAS has tried, but honestly, there’s not enough real competition to drive sporting and international excellence.

Many of us still covertly harbour dreams of seeing the crescent moon and five stars at the World Cup, but we’re constantly reminded that local football will probably never amount to anything worth getting excited over.

As a result, we’re stuck in limbo and have resigned ourselves to being content with mediocrity.

For these reasons alone, the S-League needs to end.

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Once this happens, we can stop caring about being good enough to win, and focus on allowing children to fall in love with the beautiful game on their own terms.

Kids are the ones who dare to dream big while using slippers as makeshift goalposts. They are the ones who fashion balls out of crushed newspaper or even something as innocuous as a plastic bottle.

Instead of shipping youth off to foreign football academies, let’s hit the restart button and start from ground zero by investing in grassroots-level football while having the patience to let it flourish.

With funding taken from institutionalised football, let’s give the game to the next generation.

Let’s bring the football academy programs being sold for a pretty penny to all under 8s, 12s, and 16s who want to put the ball into the back of the net, free of charge.

It’s time to take real action and give Singaporeans a reason to believe that a home-grown team of footballers can go toe-to-toe with the best there is. Just as I had thought so many years ago.

But to do this, it needs to be allowed to grow organically. It needs to start from the people, be embraced by the people, and be for the people.

So let’s kill off domestic football. If they want to, Singaporeans will always bring it back. Except this time, it will be because they want to, and not because of some ‘return on investment’ that the country is looking for. And hopefully, along the way, we’ll find that do-or-die mentality that makes good players, great.

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