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Five on Friday: 5 ways to save the S.League

In our regular look at what has been making the headlines, Ramesh William offers an alternative route to reviving Singapore's premier football league.  

SINGAPORE: With days left to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) elections on Apr 29, the local football fraternity is not in a good way.

After weeks of claims, counterclaims, allegations and denials around the elections to choose a new leadership team for the FAS, the police on Thursday (Apr 20) raided the offices of the FAS and three local football clubs.

What has been lost amid all the drama - and the hustings - is that it won’t matter a jot who wins the elections if they are not prepared to make the tough calls needed to lift Singapore football out of the doldrums.

In the past few years, Singapore’s FIFA rankings have tanked all the way to 165; that is out of 206 teams. The Lions have also failed to progress to the semi-finals of the Suzuki Cup - a competition they have won on four occasions - in the last two editions.

The S.League, the premier division of Singapore football, is a failing project - with paltry crowds, financially insecure teams and unmotivated players, most of whom are only paid for 10 out of 12 months in a year.

Needless to say that for Singapore football to emerge from its coma, a complete overhaul of the S.League is needed. 

Here’s how:

WEED OUT THE NO-MEANING TEAMS  


Harimau Muda in their match against Geylang International FC on Oct 16, 2015. (Photo: Great Eastern Yeo's S.League)

What is a team like the Garena Young Lions doing in the league? It plays in front of empty stands at the Jalan Besar Stadium because it is hard for people to muster any kind of enthusiasm for a side that has no connection to the community.  

And besides, it is a fallacy to think that putting youngsters in a team to play against other professional sides will raise their standards. Players do not improve by playing against better players, they improve by training day in, day out with more skilful and more experienced players.  

Plus, losing game after game, as the Young Lions are wont to do, only breeds a losing mentality among Singapore’s brightest footballing prospects. Young players who only know how to lose: How is that good for the national team?

Similarly, it is time to rethink whether the so-called uniformed teams - Warriors and Home United - are really needed in the league. While these sides (formerly known as SAFFC and Police) have historically been a part of Singapore’s footballing landscape, it is perhaps time to turf them out of the top tier. 

Wouldn’t it be better if Choa Chu Kang Stadium and Bishan Stadium (where they are based respectively) housed teams that have a stronger affinity with those neighbourhoods? Like say a Choa Chu Kang United or a Bishan Football Club. Ang Mo Kio, Singapore’s largest housing estate, does not even have a football club - and it is just a stone’s throw from Bishan Stadium.

And how have Japan’s Albirex Niigata and Brunei’s DPMM being in the S.League improved local football? 

They really haven’t … and they look odd in this league. Singapore can easily rally eight geographically based teams as part of its top tier.  

RESURRECT THE TRADITIONAL CLUBS


Jurong Town Football Club's D Tokijan (in white) takes on defenders from the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) in the 1988 President's Cup final at the Toa Payoh Stadium. (Photo: National Archives Singapore)

So, let's have an eight-team S.League that will have strong ties to the communities they are based in. For that to happen, the powers that be ought to look at reviving some dormant footballing giants.  

Surely Singapore’s northern footballing hotbed would welcome the return of the Sembawang Rangers - Woodlands Wellington derby. And a booming town like Jurong deserves the return of Jurong Town Football Club, which was based at the 6,000-seat Jurong Stadium (it still exists) and had current national coach V Sundramoorthy as its star player from the late 1980s to the early noughties. 

And while Sengkang Punggol Football Club morphed into Hougang United, that heavily populated north-eastern corner of Singapore is crying out for a team to root for.

Also crying out for teams to call their own: Residents in Queenstown, where Tanjong Pagar United and Tiong Bahru used to be based, and residents of Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak where Gombak United once ruled the roost.

Yet, the S.League has over the years failed to cater to the local fan - experimenting with having Chinese (Liaoning Guangyuan and Beijing Guoan FC), African (Sporting Afrique), French (Etoile), Korean (Super Reds), Malaysian (Harimau Muda), Japanese (Albirex) and Bruneian (DPMM) teams. 

PROMOTION/RELEGATION 


Tampines Rovers celebrate after winning the 2013 S.League. (Photo: TODAY)

So how would an eight-team league tentatively look like? In the east, you could have Geylang International and Tampines Rovers; in the west, Jurong Town; elsewhere, Tanjong Pagar United, Balestier Khalsa and Hougang United; and in the north, Woodlands Wellington and Sembawang Rangers. 

Simple formula: These eight teams play each other home and away twice for a total of 28 games a season. And make it competitive, too, by having promotion and relegation. The S.League in its current format is a dud with too many meaningless games.  

The second tier can have 10 teams which include Home Utd and Warriors (these uniformed teams can’t win promotion; they solely exist to give NS boys a team to play for), some current National Football League clubs and newly formed outfits based in Sengkang-Punggol, Choa Chu Kang or Bishan.  

WEEKEND KICKOFFS


Balestier Khalsa FC playing in an S.League match in September 2015. (Photo: Balestier Khalsa FC/Facebook)

One of the biggest complaints about local football is that you are never really sure when games are on. The S.League schedule makes going to the matches a bit of a chore - with plenty of fixtures during weeknights.  

Who has the time to watch football on weeknights at the stadium? We all have lives, you know. And it is not like the football now is any good to give up households chores for.

How about simplifying it? All kick-offs at 5.30pm on Saturday and Sunday, when it is a lot easier to get fans through the turnstiles. Four matches every weekend - two on Saturday, two on Sunday. The early kick-off times will avoid clashing with Premier League games on the telly and doing other weekend things - like getting sloshed, going shopping or watching a movie.  

And please, all games to be held at the clubs’ homegrounds. Not the weekly Friday night farce that we have right now where the week’s "big game" is held at an echoey Jalan Besar Stadium. 

YOUTH ACADEMIES

The current malaise in Singapore football stems from the fact that S.League outfits are unwilling to invest in young players. Very few clubs here have youth development set-ups or academies. The FAS needs to allocate seed money to S.League clubs for the sole purpose of running youth academies.  

Right now, talented youngsters are roped into the FAS-run National Football Academies, where they are groomed for the national team. Part of this process involves these players turning out for the Young Lions, where ultimately they do not improve all that much.  

Getting S.League clubs to shepherd new talent is a much more efficient and sensible approach towards improving player standards.