In an interview with Yahoo! Singapore in early December, FAS President Zainudin Nordin insisted that the S-league would not become a "poorer cousin" once the LionsXII start their Malaysia Cup campaign.
I wondered then what Mr Zainudin had up his sleeve when he said that. But with S-League 2.0 just weeks away from kick-off, I am quite certain now that he probably was simply paying lip service.
In my opinion, everything that has happened since Mr Zainudin's interview has suggested that the LionsXII's participation in the 2012 Malaysia Super League (MSL) will take priority over the upcoming S-League season.
First and foremost, just look at the LionsXII squad selection. 29 players form the roster for the 2012 season and many will agree that it is a very strong selection in terms of personnel. With a few notable exceptions (Mustafic Fahrudin and Daniel Bennett), there is little doubt that the next Singapore National Team selection will mainly consist of LionsXII players.
There were initial talks that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) would mainly select U23 players with "talent development" in mind. This is obviously not the case subsequently, as eight players aged over 23 were selected. It is apparent that this squad was selected to compete, with emphasis on local-born players.
To the existing S-Leagues clubs, this selection criterion is clearly detrimental to the quality of their squads.
Young Lions lost a total of 14 players to LionsXII and will need to rebuild from scratch for the 2012 season. It would be naïve to think that the revamped Young Lions team would be able to improve on their ninth-place finish.
Home United, an S-League title contender last season, is the next worst hit S-League team. They lost five players to the LionsXII, including Isa Halim and Juma'at Jantan, regular starters for the Protectors last season.
As it is, S-League clubs already grapple with a small talent pool in Singapore — with LionsXII, the league is effectively losing 29 of its top players.
Next, by examining the initiatives announced by FAS for the 2012 S-League season, it is even more evident that the S-League is now second in priority.
Let's dissect a few of initiatives:
- New CEO and Deputy appointed for the S-League
Analysis: To free up Mr Zainudin's and senior FAS officials' time for LionsXII
- Adding two new teams to the S-League, Harimau Muda and DPMM FC, to bring the total to 14 teams (pending Etoile's participation) / Two rounds of matches as opposed to the previous three rounds
Analysis: For the league to have the same number of teams as the MSL and to run on almost the exact calendar. MSL decided on the league format and calendar first, so S-League is simply following the MSL.
- Fixed matchdays - matches now being held over three days for each round between Thursdays and Sundays.
Analysis: To ensure that S-League games will not clash with with LionsXII's MSL match days (Tuesday and Saturdays)
All evidence points to one direction — the S-League is now playing second fiddle to the LionsXII.
Don't get me wrong. I am very much a supporter of the S-League and have been following it with fervour since its inception in 1996.
What I am trying to point out here is that there is no shame in calling a spade a spade. Certainly in the minds of local football fans, that is already the reality -- and the faster the FAS accepts it, the better they can plan and allocate their resources accordingly.
The way I see it, anything that fuels interest in local football (just look at the packed Jalan Besar stadium last week) -- right now that seems to be the MSL rather than the S-League -- is a good thing.
Damon Yeo was a barely a teenager when Singapore won the double in Malaysia back in 1994 but has not stopped supporting the national team and the S-League since.