S-League seeks to preserve X-factor

S-League seeks to preserve X-factor
Some of the estimated 2,900 fans who turned up for Tampines Rovers’ Great Eastern-Yeo’s S-League match against Geylang International at Jurong West Stadium on 15 February 2016. The match finished with a 3-3 draw.
PHOTO: The New Paper

This year was billed as a pivotal season in the projected revival of the flagging S-League and after nine rounds of matches and a third of the campaign gone, improvements are noted but the local football community still wonders if the upturn can be sustained.

With the return of the LionsXII players and Tampines Rovers signing marquee name Jermaine Pennant, the target is to bring the fans to the terraces.

That has been achieved. As of April 16, the games have attracted an average match attendance of 2,048, a significant jump from that of last year (1,302) and in 2014 (1,299).

At the stadiums, queues formed behind the ticketing booths, some stands had standing room only and parking lots were quickly taken as the grounds filled.

On social media, the 20-year-old league is gaining more traction, with its Facebook page gaining 19 per cent more followers this year (32,187 likes). Its Twitter feed, which pumps out live updates of matches, has 4,600 followers.

S-League CEO Lim Chin said: "We have stepped up our social media efforts at both the S-League level and at club level to engage the fans.

"Moving forward, we hope the competition in general and the matches in particular will continue to excite the match-going fans. Already we may possibly have a "Leicester" in the making with (third-placed) Hougang United."

But a bombshell was dropped last week when Tampines Rovers' cash-flow problems emerged and the club requested an advance on subsidies. Football Association of Singapore president Zainudin Nordin said on Sunday the governing body will not grant the club any special treatment.

Nonetheless, some fans have praised the Stags' effort to reinvigorate the S-League. Geylang International supporter Stanley Wong, 40, said: "It's easy to criticise the (Tampines) chairman (Krishna Ramachandra), but we should look at the bigger picture - what he's done for the league.

"It's a two-sided thing. You can push the boundaries and be brave, but then money issues come in. But for sure it's shown that the model is working to bring up the league."

Other fans argue that while a big name like Pennant has attracted the crowds, Tampines' current predicament showed it is a dicey move.

Full-time national serviceman Lim Thiam En, who has gone to watch all the Stags games so far, said: "For instance, I'm an Arsenal fan but I wouldn't want the club to sign a big player like (Cristiano) Ronaldo if I know that recruiting him would lead to subsequent cash problems. Even if it is going to make fans excited, it's not worth the risk."

Christopher Parwani, 19, added: "It will let other clubs know that proper planning and structuring is crucial in order to build a (successful) football club."

On the pitch, the players felt a positive change as the quality of football has improved with the higher-calibre LionsXII players and foreign signings.

Warriors FC midfielder Ridhuan Muhammad said: "Tampines are not running away with the title. Now, we are always playing against the best players of Singapore because everyone is playing in the same league. As players, we feel more motivated now because we know that the level is higher."

But there is still a niggling doubt about continued improvement.

Home United fan Daniel Lau observed that while healthy crowd figures have been reported at big matches involving clubs like Home, Albirex or Tampines, the same could not be seen at other matches.

"At Bishan, it was great. But when I went to Toa Payoh stadium for a Balestier game, it was relatively empty and attendance was poor.

"It's up to Pennant to justify the hype with his performance. It'll interesting to see if the attendance can be sustained."

This article was first published on April 26, 2016.
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