Supporting role eroded for England

I'm trying to get the audience here at Bedok Community Centre to say that they are England supporters. It is not easy.

"I'm here to watch good football only, lah."

"Suarez is playing against his Liverpool team-mates, I want to see what he does."

And so on. I know nothing about football. But people who know tell me that Singaporeans are suckers for England, because of the hangover from colonialism and the glory days of the team in the 1960s and because of the English Premier League, which has a huge following in Singapore.

A few minutes before kick-off, asking the men here at the CC to admit that they support England is futile.

Being an England fan must be like admitting you have a hidden and embarrassing habit. I think it is because Singaporeans like winners and the England team's winning days went away with the Empire.

It must be like having a soft spot for a dear friend with an addiction problem. You want them to get well and move ahead, but deep down you know they will reward your emotional investment with crushing disappointment.

The viewing hall is sized for two badminton courts. About 200 chairs are arranged in front of a bright projected image of the match. All chairs are taken and a few watch from outside the hall. The corridors outside are choked with bicycles. A few wives are parked in the CC's Han's 24-hour restaurant, glumly stirring milky coffees and teas. Inside the hall, it is air-conditioned and nice enough, but surely one's own living room is nicer.

A semi-retired trader in his 50s who wants to be known as William gets agitated when I ask him why he's come here to the CC.

The question triggers a rant about the cost of living, corporate monopolies, free World Cup matches on the telly in Thailand and other places in Asia and why coffeeshops cannot afford to screen matches and why Singapore should stop calling itself a First World nation. He is an opposition website come to life. Everything comes around to politics eventually.

Instead of free World Cup matches on free-to-air television, "on bloody Channel 5, we get that Hossan Leong," he says.

I want to ask him why he feels he is owed World Cup matches and what his problem is with Hossan Leong but I don't want to be stuck here for too long, so I move the questions to the match. Who does he think is the better team?

"England," he says. Finally - a supporter. But no.

"Because Singapore Pools gave England only 1.50 to win, but gave Uruguay 3.50 to draw and 3.50 to win," he says. William is a trader, after all. No, he says, he did not bet on this match or any other match. He is also being picky about which matches to watch, as he won't risk his health.

"Someone in China died after staying up three nights," he informs me gravely.

In spite of everyone here pretending to not be England fans, every time the team have a chance at goal, people here get excited.

"Lai loh! Lai loh!," someone screams. It is Hokkien for "here it comes".

"Aiyah!" with raised fists is the usual response when the Uruguay goalie saves.

The second half. Someone here is eating fried chicken from Han's and the smell fills the room, mingling with the aroma of chips.

This is the first match I have ever watched in full (I lack the gene for understanding ball sports and teamwork). It is exciting but even then by 4am I am groggy. A few in the hall are dead asleep. The crowd screams - Rooney has equalised. The sleepers in here are startled awake. So are the people sleeping in the HDB blocks nearby, I will bet.

Roy Cheong, 43, a driver, has the matches on his television at home but he is here with Anthony Lim, 53, a coach and a friend from church. They are shepherding five Secondary 3 boys from the church. The boys are keen EPL club supporters and that love has translated into support for England, says Mr Cheong.

The match ends. England have lost 1-2. The hall empties quietly. Mr Cheong asks the boys to give me a quote. They look tired and grumpy. There is a long, awkward silence.

I tell them they don't have to. As England fans, they will have many years ahead of them, and lots of chances, to justify their support.

This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
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