How Europe is killing S’porean football

John Davidson

The future of local football isn’t looking too bright right now.

The beautiful game is having a torrid time in football-crazy Singapore, and here’s why

Empty stadiums, sponsor indifference, brawling players, poor facilities and staid matches. Singapore’s professional football competition, the S-League, is in a tough spot. Fifteen years after its inception, with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) pulling the country out of the Malaysian Cup to start its own competition, the S-League is enduring its most difficult season to date.

According to sources inside the FAS, attendances have slumped to an average of 2,100 this year.

Few sponsors signing up and a brawl breaking out on the field have followed dwindling crowds in 2010.

Two teams — the Young Lions and Beijing Guoan — did their best interpretation of a Bruce Lee film mixed with WWE wresting, in a recent match that had to be abandoned. The ugly scenes were beamed around the world and it was not a good look.

At the same time, the Singaporean national team failed to qualify for the World Cup (again), missed out on qualifying for the Asian Cup (again) and have just returned from a trip to Serbia amid accusations of unprofessional behavior.

In a football-mad country like Singapore it’s fair to ask, where did it all go wrong?

Is the BPL to blame?

Part of the problem is the success of the Barclays Premier League (BPL), the Champions League and other European football competitions. Increasingly, Singaporeans would rather watch Ronaldo, Drogba or Messi strut their stuff on TV then head to a local ground to watch the S-League.

ESPN STAR Sports football journalist Kelvin Leong says this is a problem not just for Singapore but also for most Southeast Asian nations.

“The only reason leagues like the Indonesian and Malaysian leagues don’t get affected as much as the S-League is simply down to the country’s population,” says Leong.

“The BPL, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A have huge followings in this part of the world and their players have god-like status amongst fans.”

“Especially in a country where the population is around four million, the amount of fans willing to forgo Wayne Rooney to catch the S-League players in action is slim.”

Foreign factors are not helping

Leong believes it’s unfair to judge the S-League just on the recent Young Lion-Beijing Guoan brawl and says the introduction of French team Etoile FC, currently topping the table, has spiced up the competition.

But the inclusion of foreign clubs to the S-League is another thorny issue, and it means Singapore has had to withdraw its teams from the AFC Champions League, the top football club competition in Asia.

The AFC does not allow top leagues across Asia to include foreign teams in their domestic competitions, and it also requires an average attendance of 5,000 people per match, well above the S-League average.

Leong admits that this could have a huge impact on the local scene.

“Teams like Singapore Armed Forces FC have learnt a lot from playing in Asia’s premium tournament,” says Leong. “If they are deprived of that opportunity, it will compromise the growth of the game in Singapore.”

Loyalty is another issue

Singapore’s fixation with the BPL was shown clearly in 2009 when Liverpool played the Singapore Lions at the National Stadium.

The stadium was filled with Reds fans, with little support for the Lions, and the biggest cheer of the night was when star Liverpool striker Fernando Torres walked out from the tunnel.

Unsurprisingly, the Lions players weren’t impressed with the support they received in their own stadium from their own fans.

Singapore is full of armchair football fans

Sponsorship expert Kenny Haung, regional business director of the agency ESP, agrees that the rise of the BPL and economic prosperity have combined to hurt the S-League.

“The advent of the pay-TV business model, in conjunction with increased affluence and sophistication of Singaporeans, has contributed to a decline in interest in local football,” says Huang.

“Singaporeans now enjoy numerous lifestyle and entertainment choices that were not available even 15 to 20 years ago and any football fix they may have will be fully met in the air-conditioning of their living rooms or pubs by viewing the global superstars that are BPL players and their globally recognized club brands.”

Stem the outflow of talent

According to Huang, the drift of Singaporean stars to Indonesia’s Super League, such as Lions striker Noh Alam Shah, is another problem and there seems to be no end in sight.

At the moment there are seven Singaporean national team players plying their trade in Indonesia, such as Mustafic Fahrudin, Precious Emuejeraye, Khairul Amri, Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan.

“Unless the S-league clubs are able to protect their core assets, the quality of the product will be seen to have been reduced and will affect what little spectator and sponsor confidence that exists,” says Huang.

Is this fixable?

How can Singaporean football be fixed? Opinions vary, but the consensus on the one thing the S-League needs is more money. Improved stadiums, better pitches, higher quality players and increased marketing are also a must.

Many long-suffering local football fans pine for the days of the Malaysian Cup, where Singapore played in front of bumper, passionate crowds in local derbies and won many titles. But experts believe the creation of the S-League was the right move and all it needs is more support.

Md Noor Hadi, the owner of Singapore football website Kallang Roar, says the birth of the S-League is the “best thing to ever happen to Singapore football.”

“What FAS should do now is to revamp the S-League and make it the best football league in ASEAN,” says Hadi. “At the same time, FAS should continue to invest and focus on youth development.”

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