Football: Divided opinion

Football: Divided opinion
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Five years ago at the launch of the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) Strategic Plan, the S.League was hailed as one of the top 10 in Asia.

Based on the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) assessment algorithm, the Republic's only professional sports league found itself in elite company.

Of late, though, the 20-year-old S.League has lost its lustre, with poor attendance and a paucity of star names in the competition.

As a result, the FAS is conducting a strategic review of the S.League and among the options is for the competition to go semi-professional.

With the ASEAN Super League (ASL) projected to kick off next year and the LionsXII's participation in the Malaysian Super League also up for review at the end of this season, local football is in a state of flux, with upcoming decisions possibly effecting major changes in the ecosystem here.

The fraternity appears divided on the issue of a semi-pro S.League.

"I will be very sad if it comes to this, it's a backward step. And, if the S.League takes a backwards step, then so will Singapore football," said former Singapore captain, Seak Poh Leong.

Seak, who has had stints as a youth coach and national coach, along with being the FAS technical director from 1985 to 1991, called it a "big negative" for football here, even if there were to remain two professional teams, in the ASL and MSL, with the S.League acting as a feeder competition for those two sides.

Up until the S.League's inception in 1996, the Singapore football scene was first amateur, before turning semi-pro.

There are 10 teams in the current Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League, including three foreign clubs Albirex Niigata of Japan, Brunei DPMM FC and Malaysia's Harimau Muda. The Courts Young Lions are backed by the FAS, and the other six are local entities who depend on their ability to hit pre-set targets, and can receive up to $1 million in subsidies from the FAS each year, a sum that forms a large part of the annual operating cost.


Each of the seven clubs are also expected to also generate their own income through sponsorship and the profits from jackpot machines, to put together at least a solid, professionally-run team.

Some struggle to even attract main sponsors, let alone make a profit.

Except for Hougang United.

In April, The New Paper reported that Bill Ng's Hougang United announced a profit of more than $2m in the last year alone. Ng's Cheetahs are well in the black, with profits earned from their clubhouse operations, of which the main feature is the jackpot machines.

But Hougang are a rare success story, and former national youth coach Tay Peng Kee, currently general manager of S.League giants Tampines Rovers, believes going semi-pro could help the sport.

"In the current state that we're in, going semi-pro is not that bad an idea.

"There's not much point in spending that much money on a professional league that isn't going anywhere, and isn't developing enough players," he said, pointing to the limited budgets of S.League clubs that he asserts have led teams to being less professional in their operations.

"If we do go semi-pro, we need to make sure that we have a comprehensive youth development system, with good youth coaches, and that will buy us time to develop players until the time is right for us to turn pro again."

Seak and Tay are both aligned in their thinking on one front - that the local talent pool has diminished because of poor youth development strategies.

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