SINGAPORE — It was sheer serendipity that, on the same Sunday (18 August) that Football Association of Singapore (FAS) vice-president Edwin Tong announced plans to have Singapore qualify for the 2034 Fifa World Cup Finals, a sobering announcement also came from Home United.
The Singapore Premier League club’s head coach Raddy Avramovic suddenly stepped down from his post barely two months after receiving the appointment. He is understood to have been diagnosed with lung cancer and is returning to Serbia to seek medical treatment.
Avramovic is better known among local fans as the Singapore national team’s most successful coach, having led them to three Asean Football Championship titles in 2004, 2007 and 2012.
But he also has a lesser-known achievement under his belt: He was the head coach in 2008, when Singapore went their furthest in the ultimately futile attempt at qualifying for the World Cup Finals by 2010. This was in pursuit of the original “Goal 2010” target set by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.
So as the football fraternity wished a speedy recovery to the well-liked Serb in his battle against cancer, one has to ask: Does FAS also have the determination to battle against the deep-rooted cynicism against Singapore football’s ability to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals?
Multitude of problems since 2010
Such cynicism is understandable, and it is not just because of the national team’s current standing in the Fifa world rankings – a lowly 162nd place out of 211 nations and territories.
A multitude of problems contribute to these doubts: A struggling domestic professional league, a long slump in international results, a lack of high-quality talents, a dearth of young upstarts, a dwindling fan base and, of course, the embarrassment of the Goal 2010 flop.
For a country that prides itself on constant and efficient successes in nation building, the Goal 2010 failure is like an ugly scar which Singapore has tried to hide for nearly a decade. Any talk of reviving the dream has been quickly ridiculed and hushed.
Yet, I would argue that, in the nine years after 2010, Singapore football has suffered precisely because there has been no target to aim for, no World Cup dream to galvanise our players into becoming better.
And so the football scene has been allowed to meander and drift aimlessly into the doldrums, with little incentive to meet even scaled-down, short-term objectives.
Battle for football to remain relevant
It has been nearly a decade and Singapore football has precious little to show for, especially since Avramovic left after the 2012 Asean Football Championship triumph. Many believe that it is in a worse state than it was before Goal 2010 was mooted in 1998.
So it seems like it is necessary to have a long-term target, just to focus the football scene onto the path for potential success. Which is why Goal 2034, or whatever FAS wishes to call this latest endeavour, is not a bad idea.
But here’s the biggest concern: How to ensure this is not another fruitless dream like Goal 2010?
Because the stakes are raised in the new bid: it is a battle for football to remain relevant in Singapore.
All the cynical eyes will be on FAS, and on whether it is able to shake off the previous failure, wipe away the years of listless mediocrity, and get the nation firmly behind its new ambition.
And, just as its vice-president Tong is being bold in ambition, it must back it up with the Republic’s most viable asset: financial might.
Outdoing other nations with financial strength
Yes, if it wishes to reach the World Cup in 15 years, it cannot make the same mistake of Goal 2010 and think that other nations are not equally ambitious, if not more.
The world of football is dynamic; nothing stands still in the sport, and every country is eager to outdo the other.
FAS may lay down well-thought-out plans to train players from a young age, set them on a clear path to national-team representation and send them for overseas training stints – but this is not enough.
Not when many other countries are doing the same, with a bigger talent base, with more willing sponsors, and with more rabid fans.
So how can Singapore outdo these countries and grab one of the eight qualifying spots for Asian countries at the 48-team 2034 World Cup?
If FAS is really going for broke here, then it should break the bank in convincing more young footballers to join in its Goal 2034 ambition. It should spare no expense in hiring the finest coaching brains possible to wring the most from a limited talent pool. And it should pump in huge funding to ensure a stellar support system for football to thrive.
Go big, or go home
Will FAS do so? Or will it fall back on its usual, safe stance of being prudent and unadventurous?
To which I say: Go big, or go home.
There is no point in dreaming big and acting small in football. Football, in essence, is about having impractical dreams and throwing in an unrealistic amount of resources. Just look at the billions that top European clubs spend on signing star players, all to chase dreams of being Number One.
Put the money where the mouth is, FAS. If the biggest concern of local youngsters is whether they can have a comfortable career in football, then offer enough pay to convince them. If the national team players feel they need a more astute coach to lift them to greater heights, then don’t be hesitant in offering lucrative contracts to the finest tacticians or motivators.
If there is no desperation for success, then there is no point in even thinking about outdoing the 40-odd Asian nations to make it to the 2034 World Cup. FAS should realise that this is the last-chance saloon for the sport it governs; fail again, and it will sound the death knell for the unproductive local football industry.
So, by all means, go ahead and revive an old dream, FAS. But for the sake of Singapore football, do not let it fizzle out again. There may not be another chance.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 16 years, and was formerly sports editor at My Paper. The views expressed are his own.