Build a winning football team... and national spirit

Build a winning football team... and national spirit
LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud lifting the Malaysia FA Cup (above) after the LionsXII beat Kelantan 3-1 at Bukit Jalil National Stadium on May 23. The 6,000 Singapore fans (below) had been out-sung and out-cheered but found their strongest voice when they sang Majulah Singapura after the final whistle.

The last time I saw a Singapore team play a football final in Kuala Lumpur was almost 40 years ago in 1976 when they lost 3-0 to Selangor at the Merdeka stadium.

It was a forgettable match, an off day on the pitch for captain Samad Allapitchay and his boys in the one-sided match.

I remember the overnight coach trip back home with sullen-faced fans deflated from the heavy defeat.

Two Saturdays ago at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, I was mentally prepared to relive that spirit-sagging day, so heavily stacked were the odds against a LionsXII victory.

This time, I had gone to the Malaysian capital to watch the match as a council member of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).

When we entered the stadium two hours before kick-off, it was already filled to the brim and rocking from the sound of 80,000 Kelantan fans singing their hearts out.

Many had been there overnight after making the five-hour drive from their home state in the north.

It was an intimidating sight, especially for a Singapore team that had not beaten their opponents in the last eight encounters.

When the match started, none of us could hear the referee's whistle, so deafening was the noise inside.

But football has a funny way of producing the unexpected, and our boys found the net three times to Kelantan's solitary goal.

The 6,000 Singapore fans who had been out-sung and out-cheered throughout the game found their strongest voice when they sang Majulah Singapura after the final whistle.

At that moment, when the National Anthem rang through the by then fast-emptying stadium, we were all Lions.

So, where does Singapore football go from here?

It is tempting to say: the gold medal at the forthcoming SEA Games and South-east Asian champions.

But after that, if indeed it happens, what?

Developing the game here so that it has a long-term future isn't like planning for a 90-minute match when the difference between victory and defeat can sometimes depend on a goalkeeper's outstretched leg or a striker's expectant head being in the right place at the right time.

Succeeding in the competitive world of international football requires much more planning and resources, and a clear vision of how to get there.

It starts with a system to identify talented kids and provide them with training and skills development, and opportunities to play competitively at the highest level.

For most countries, it means a successful domestic league, usually professionally run, supported by home crowds willing to pay to watch their teams play.

Singapore has tried doing this but without much success.

The S-League was started in 1996 and is now into its 20th season with 10 clubs, three of which are foreign.

It was a brave effort to try to emulate the professional leagues in other countries that have provided a pipeline of players for their national teams.

Alas, the results have not been encouraging.

Average attendances have fallen over the years from around 3,000 when the league started to 1,300 last year.

At the grassroots level, in schools, there is dwindling participation even though football remains the most widely played sport and attracts more spectators than any other.

An FAS survey earlier this year found that one in two children said they wanted to play, but only 5.9 per cent of boys and 1.6 per cent of girls actually did so.

There is one other peculiarly Singaporean problem which has to do with it being dominated by one race, Malays.

Even though this has always been the case, including during the glory days of the Malaysia Cup, the imbalance is much more pronounced today.

There was only one Chinese player, Gabriel Quak, in the Singapore team on Saturday, and one Indian, Madhu Mohana.

Most parents today would rule a career in football offside for their children, given its uncertain prospects and short professional shelf life. This has shrunk the talent base even further, making it smaller than it already is.

Indeed, as the Singapore economy develops and matures with more opportunities opening up for the young, this problem will become even harder to solve.

But without a wider base of young Singaporeans playing the game at competitive levels, football here will continue to struggle to produce players of international calibre.

So while there are moves to improve the S-League, and the people behind them should be commended for trying, it may be time to try some other approach.

The FAS has appointed a Belgian veteran, Michel Sablon, who has a proven track record in his country, "to develop the pipeline here so that it can produce top young players and teams that can compete in Asia and Europe".

It's a tall order, but whatever his plan might be, the problem of attracting talented young players of all races to take up football as a career has to be solved first.

I can think of only one solution in pragmatic, materialistic Singapore: Make a strong commitment to take care of the professional careers and lives of those selected for national duty.

Remove the worry from these young lads that after they have played their hearts out for the country, they will be left high and dry when they hang up their playing boots.

Theirs should be a profession, like, say, the army, with a clear career path, and the accompanying rewards that go with bringing national glory to the country.

It might be costly having such a scheme, but without it, Mr Sablon will find it hard to achieve his goal.

In fact during the heyday of the Malaysia Cup, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a thriving business league with many of the top players employed by Singapore companies providing them with job security and other perks.

Why not recreate this by getting companies like Singtel, Singapore Airlines, Keppel and others to play ball in a similar way?

The present situation is so bad that even when a young star emerges, like goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud whose saves that day kept Singapore in the game, or two-goal hero Sahil Suhaimi, the LionsXII might still lose them to Malaysian state teams willing to pay double or triple what they get here.

Indeed there is already talk about their departures, and if they do go, they would be merely following in the footsteps of many of our other football stars.

That a relatively affluent country like Singapore cannot match the rewards being offered by Malaysian and Indonesian clubs is an indictment of the value we place on these national players.

The numbers speak for themselves: The FAS annual budget is about $10 million compared to $35 million for its counterparts in Malaysia and $112 million in Indonesia.

It is time Singapore put its money where the action is.

Rewarding our national players adequately and creating a professional career scheme for them will also be in line with the Government's new mantra that it is skills and mastery of the craft that should be valued and rewarded, not paper qualifications.

Why is it important to create the conditions necessary to have a winning national football team?

Because there is no other sport that can make so many Singaporeans feel as one behind those players.

Consider the money spent as not just about developing a sport but a national spirit.

It's the ultimate team-building exercise.

This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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