Spread the respect to all, even the unheralded in sport

No one makes you fall in love.

No one forces you to pick up a racket, ignore your homework, sweat through your school uniform.

No one insisted that you join a football club, for a lowly salary, and run till you vomit, and give up your weekends and miss your family.

But we're just glad that you - the professional and the amateur, those who shine and those who fall forgotten by the wayside - did fall in love.

We're grateful for your choice because it softens the edges of an academic nation. We're thankful because if all of you didn't play, and persist, then this is what would happen.

Stadiums locked. Stands layered with dust. Dressing rooms boarded shut. Whistles muted. Applause gone. Sport dead. Hope flown. Imagine that.

This is what you, the runner and footballer, the swimmer and the gymnast, do. You keep sport alive.

This is what you, the pool player who gave up school, and the sailor who sacrificed piano lessons, and the footballers who cut costs by shifting to Johor Baru, do for us.

You let dreaming live and give struggle a shine by taking a leap of fantastic faith.

But do we owe you for this? Did we force you to make this choice?

Perhaps what we owe athletes is respect. Not the famous athlete, but all athletes. The unheralded and unknown, the faceless kayaker and the substitute on the bench.

If we didn't have them, then how would we fill enough teams to have a league? If we didn't have enough runners, how could we fill eight lanes of a race? Not everyone can be a champion, but we need people to champion sport.

We owe them officials who work as hard for players as players do for their game. Who try to improve their working conditions and help ready them for a life after sport. Who will find a way to arrange practice times for a gifted table tennis kid with a tough schedule. We owe them decisions that respect their life choices.

Let us be clear: not all players are eligible for sainthood. Some smoke, some whine, some own a careless work ethic, some bring a fragile discipline to the ground.

Yet there's something hideous when an older player says he's fallen out of love with football.

As if he wishes he never laced up those boots, divorcing himself from the single thing that once sustained him. Men grieve over chances missed, but to regret football itself as a life choice should give us pause.

There's no guarantee in sport, no security, just hard work and chance and a mad mathematics where only a few will find fame and some fortune. But love, and hope, and dreaming, is what sustains a game.

Players will whine and gripe, but it's their passion which the young hear, huddled in awe as they listen to tales of the ruggedness of practice and taste of sweat, the beauty of a ball kicked and a dribble composed, the losing together and the winning collectively.

Passion is the umbilical cord between generations and passion is paramount in a nation of small numbers.

For if passion erodes, sport stutters and its message becomes mangled: No, this isn't worth it. Unlace those boots. Put down that racket. Be afraid, girls and boys, of falling in love.

The footballers on these pages were kids once and now are men lugging around their laments. Hearts will break in sport, jobs will be lost, fame and form will elude them, this they must know.

But what they feel is the worst of things - disrespected by their sport.

Sport is not charity, but at its best it should offer its practitioners a dignity, a sense of a life lived meaningfully.

Perhaps this is what we owe these men.

Perhaps we can do it by offering them quiet thanks for once falling in love, sweating through their school uniforms and helping keep football in Singapore alive.



This article was first published on March 1, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.