Wataru Murofushi wore a grin of someone who can hardly believe his fortunes. In his very first season as a professional footballer, the 23-year-old Sports Science graduate from Juntendo University played so well that he was awarded the Player of the Year of the inaugural Singapore Premier League (SPL).
The Albirex Niigata midfielder spoke of his ambition to eventually play in the United States, Australia or Canada. Partly because he wants to learn to speak English well; partly also because the “standard is higher” than the league he is in.
“The SPL has a couple of good teams like Home United and Tampines Rovers, and it was not too easy for us to win against them. But the standard of the whole league is not very high,” he told Yahoo News Singapore moments after winning his award at the season-ending Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Nite on Saturday (13 October).
Indeed, there were precious few improvements in the struggling professional football league despite the much-publicised rebranding from the S-League, which started in 1996.
Granted, FAS vice-president Edwin Tong did say during the league’s official launch in March that the rebranding “does not automatically mean things will be better immediately”. Nonetheless, issues that have persistently dogged Singapore football linger on, despite the SPL’s efforts to implement new outreach programmes and digital platforms to engage the community and fans.
Dominance shows no signs of waning
The most glaring anomaly continues to be the domination of Albirex, a satellite team from the J2 League club of the same name from Japan. Made up largely of Japanese players and coaches, the Singapore-based team stormed to their third straight league title, and cliched their fourth straight Singapore Cup and League Cup titles.
Not only are they shutting out the trophies from SPL’s local clubs, their domination sees no sign of waning. They just went through the entire season unbeaten – the first time this has happened in the league’s history – and finished a record 23 points ahead of second-placed Home.
They were also dominant at the FAS Nite, clinching the Player of the Year (Murofushi), Coach of the Year (Kazuaki Yoshinaga), Young Player of the Year (Adam Swandi, one of only two Singaporeans in the team), Top Scorer (Shuhei Hoshino) and the Fair Play awards. And in a fans selection of the league’s Best XI, Albirex players took seven of the 11 available spots.
While Albirex can hardly be blamed for their dominance, they are in a position to tap Japan’s fertile talent-breeding base for their players. This puts other SPL clubs at a significant disadvantage, as they have to fight for scraps amid the dwindling talent pool in Singapore.
This is further compounded when regional leagues lure the top Singaporean players abroad with better wages and higher standards of football. The most recent Singapore national squad selected by coach Fandi Ahmad saw eight stalwarts plying their trade in Thai and Malaysian leagues:
Goalkeepers Hassan Sunny (Army United, Thai League 2), Izwan Mahbud (Nongbua Pitchaya, Thai League 2)
Defenders Baihakki Khaizan (Udon Thani FC, Thai League 2), Safuwan Baharudin (Pahang FA, Malaysian Super League), Zulfahmi Arifin (Chonburi FC, Thai League 1)
Midfielders Hariss Harun (Johor Darul Takzim, Malaysian Super League), Gabriel Quak (Navy FC, Thai League 1)
Forward Faris Ramli (PKNS, Malaysian Super League)
These players have a combined 519 international caps among them, and their absence in the SPL have severely hampered the Singapore clubs in their quest to overtake Albirex.
Not only that, the lack of star power, as well as suspense in the title chase, meant that crowd attendances remained low. Without sustainable gate receipts, clubs are struggling despite receiving annual subsidies of around $1 million. Players of nine-time domestic champions Warriors FC, for instance, received their wages late in September and October.
Foundations for improvement
Despite these persistent problems, the rebranded SPL looks like it is here to stay, with FAS president Lim Kia Tong confident that it will eventually breathe new life into Singapore’s only professional sports competition.
During the March launch, he listed the league’s four key “pillars” – youth development, capability development, cost efficiency and a vibrant football culture – as the foundations they need to build on. And youth development measures – in which local clubs have to meet a quota of six Under-23 players, with three starting every match – are welcomed by SPL players as a good start.
Zulfadmi Suzliman, 22, is one player who has benefitted from this quota with his promotion to Tampines Rovers’ senior squad this year. The winger won the Goal of the Year award on Saturday with a superb curling shot after deftly cutting in from the left flank.
He said, “That’s what young players need – more opportunities to prove themselves. It is important for our development, and I’m happy to be given the chances to play in many league games.”
Still, it is hard to shake off the impression that the Singapore league’s rebranding is a cosmetic exercise. Unless the SPL becomes more competitive and player standards improve next season, the local football community would continue to face the grim realities of near-empty stands in the stadiums and the exodus of good players to overseas leagues.