Let's focus on S.League

Divided in opinion, united in analysis.

The local football fraternity has mixed reactions to the Football Association of Malaysia's (FAM) decision not to extend the partnership that saw Singapore's LionsXII and Malaysia's Harimau Muda play in each other's domestic league over the last four years.

But they are united in their views on how Singapore football must move forward - jettison all thoughts about Malaysian football and the LionsXII - and devote all the attention on the S.League.

"Let's be realistic, with all that's happened over the last few years, it doesn't take a genius to see that local football has been going down," said former Singapore international Rafi Ali.

"We need to do something drastic with the S.League, pay players more, demand more professionalism from them, bring in better foreign players and do a lot more for youth development," added the former midfielder, who was in the Singapore team that left Malaysian football in 1994 after winning the League and Malaysia Cup Double.

Sources reveal that there is a move to place the LionsXII in the S.League next year, before moving on to play in the proposed ASEAN Super League (ASL) in 2017, but Rafi is completely against the idea.

"Based on my experience, it's not a good idea. We went from playing in front of packed crowds to playing in an empty National Stadium," said Rafi of the Premier League, the predecessor of the S.League launched in 1996.

"There was no mood, and we just went through the motions, and essentially playing training games in preparation for the South-east Asia Games (in Thailand)."

The team of national players cruised to the top of the table, staying undefeated the entire season.

Former Football Association of Singapore (FAS) technical director, P N Sivaj agrees.

"LionsXII players should be spread out in the six local clubs, like it was in the first year of the S.League," he told The New Paper yesterday.

"They are household names and, if I may take it a step further, they should play for clubs near where they live, to garner support from the community."

Sivaji strongly asserts that the league should proceed with nine teams - after the exclusion of Harimau Muda - instead of trying to hastily assemble clubs like Tanjong Pagar United or Gombak United, who are currently sitting out.

Gombak chairman John Yap revealed that his club have cleared all their debts and will explore the possibility of returning next year, should the S.League ask them, but he was adamant that the local league must be the FAS' main priority from now on.


"We don't know enough about the ASL to comment about it at this point, but the emphasis must be on the S.League, and its Centres of Excellence," he said.

"We are not in debt and will explore returning to the league, but it is clear, local football must head in the right direction."

Sivaji asserts that Singapore now have nothing more to lose, after what has been a misadventure in Malaysian football despite being crowned MSL champions in 2013, and winning the Malaysian FA Cup this year.

"This (the end of the partnership) is a blessing in disguise that will force us to focus on our own league, which was the main idea of starting the S.League in the first place," said the former national coach, who remained confident of the Republic's ability to bounce back.

"I'm sure we can recover. There is a lot of love for local football, be it in the national team, or clubs. And we have already proven in the past that we can."

It's not all about the money

The issue of the costs of travelling south of the Causeway has been put forward as one of the key reasons behind the Football Association of Malaysia's (FAM) decision to end the partnership with its Singapore counterpart.

Malaysian clubs are reportedly united in not extending the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that has seen the LionsXII competing in Malaysian competitions since 2012.

While cost is a factor, sources reveal that there are other factors at play.

"The costs of playing in Singapore are going up, the exchange rate is about RM3 to S$1 now, and it is getting expensive for clubs to play there," said former Malaysia national coach B Sathianathan, who asserts that Malaysia has benefited little from the MOU.

FAM deputy president Affandi Hamzah told The New Paper on Tuesday that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) "did not commit to" FAM's request to have it foot the bill for Malaysian sides playing there in a quid pro quo system for the LionsXII's travel costs up north.

But sources revealed that the FAS was willing to pay what would be about an $80,000 addition to their annual maximum projected travel costs of $180,000.

Similar conflicting accounts on other matters have also come to light.

Affandi told TNP that the FAM felt the MOU has been beneficial, with sources revealing expression of similar sentiments in FAM's official correspondence with FAS yesterday.

But the FAM's stance is not shared by several in Malaysia, including Sathianathan.

He said: "I don't think it's (the MOU) served its purpose of development.

"After four years in the S.League, look at the performance of Harimau Muda at the South-east Asia Games."

Harimau Muda are effectively the Malaysian youth development team.

In the 2013 edition of the SEA Games, Malaysia finished fourth but were booted out at the group stages earlier this year in Singapore.

The Singapore national team made up primarily of LionsXII players, in comparison, won the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup and are now third in their World Cup qualification group.


Meanwhile, Football Malaysia LLP, the company that runs the MSL, is looking to take broadcast rights away from the LionsXII, a move that complicates matters.

That would cost the Singapore side what is understood to be some $2 million that it earns from selling its rights to StarHub.

Official meetings between FAS and FAM, before FAM's decision on Tuesday, gave the indication that Malaysia was keen on a four-year extension of the MOU, with the LionsXII allowed to employ up to four foreign players in what has been a team fully populated by Singaporeans.

But TNP understands that the FAS had instead indicated its desire for only a one-year deal, before the team move on to the proposed ASEAN Super League in 2017.


This article was first published on November 26, 2015.
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