Crowd favourites like Pennant germane to S-League's success

Tampines Rovers coach V. Sundramoorthy, who is used to playing in front of capacity crowds at the National Stadium, is not a man easily impressed.

But last Saturday, even he was taken aback when a 2,000-strong crowd turned up to witness former English Premier League player Jermaine Pennant help Tampines beat Hougang United 2-0 in a friendly.

Given that the average S-League match attendance in 2014 was 1,300, the surprise turnout got the former Malaysia Cup crowd favourite thinking: "Imagine the crowds if each S-League club signs someone like Pennant."

Pulling in the crowds in football is hardly rocket science. Quality players, especially exciting attackers, attract fans - which is why Pennant's imminent move is a good one for Singapore's ailing professional league.

Japan, Thailand and Australia, which boast thriving leagues, were helped by signing star players.

Brazilians Zico and Bebeto, and English striker Gary Lineker, were some of the big names that helped launch the J-League in its nascent years, while Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Juninho Paulista all played Down Under. That Pennant counts Arsenal and Liverpool among his former employers is a bonus in EPL-mad Singapore.

Sure, there will be those who underperform, such as former Tottenham player Kazuyuki Toda, who played for Warriors FC in 2013. But, as the leagues in Japan and Thailand have shown, there is more to gain than lose from investing in quality foreigners who can lift standards and interest levels.

In just 45 minutes against Hougang, Pennant showed glimpses of the ability that made Liverpool shell out £6.7 million (S$13.9 million) for him in 2006, ghosting past players with his skill and pace, and troubling the defence with his incisive passing. He even notched an assist.

So, while there is still a month to go before the season starts, the Pennant signing could well be the booster shot the S-League desperately needs. In fact, it could be the best thing that has happened to the league, now in its 21st season. It isn't every day that the league is a hit on social media and gets a mention in the British press.

But, at the same time, it cannot be seen as the instant fix to the S-League's woes. Instead, the onus is now on the league and its clubs to build on this unprecedented buzz.

One way forward is to take a leap of faith and attract more household names to the S-League, and so usher in a new era in Singapore football.

Difficult? Sure. Impossible? As Tampines have shown, not really.

If anything, the Pennant move shows that big pay packets are not the only way to entice former EPL stars to play here. Even at $40,000 a month, Pennant, who was reportedly earning £25,000 ($51,751) a week at Wigan, is taking a significant pay cut.

Why Singapore is attractive is because it offers an expatriate-friendly environment - a clean, safe and family-friendly city where life can be quite comfortable. Sources say all these factors heavily influenced Pennant's decision to sign for Tampines and spurn interest from South Korea, Australia and Malaysia.

It is therefore incumbent on clubs to sell these perks to players, the same way Tampines officials did with Pennant, who has two children aged nine and five.

Home United's Danish striker Ken Ilso, who played in Germany for Fortuna Duesseldorf, said these are certainly factors that would appeal to players with families when they choose to go abroad.

Former England international Paul Parker has already made Singapore his home for the last few years. David Beckham is a regular visitor, thanks to his ambassadorial role with Marina Bay Sands. Likewise former stars like Robbie Fowler, who endorses Courts. It probably would not be that difficult to persuade EPL stars in the twilight of their careers to play in Singapore.

There will, however, be critics of such moves. "Why can't local players command the same salary?" they will ask. With wages like that, more locals will be enticed to choose the sport as a career, they will argue.

But remuneration has to be commensurate with pedigree. Pennant, for all his disciplinary issues, spent 11 years in England's top flight, including stints at the EPL's top clubs. He also played for Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final against AC Milan.

Local players should not see this as a slight. Rather, they should use this opportunity to raise their game, put on good displays to win over new fans and eventually reap the spillover effects of the S-League's heightened profile in the long run.

Yet even as the S-League is enjoying its rare moment in the spotlight, the buzz surrounding the almost forgotten league now also raises questions about how the ASEAN Super League's (ASL) imminent kick-off next year will affect the domestic game.

Pulling out the league's best players next season, which is the Football Association of Singapore's plan when they form a franchise team, will be counterproductive to Tampines' efforts to make the S-League more exciting.

The buzz around Pennant's arrival shows that given the right ingredients, the S-League has the potential to pull in the crowds. It will be a shame if instead of riding on this momentum, all that we will remember of the year that Jermaine Pennant played in the S-League is what could have been.

This article was first published on January 15, 2016.
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