COMMENT: It's time to stop calling football Singapore's national sport

Singapore players react with dismay after conceding a late winning goal to Vietnam at the SEA Games football competition. (PHOTO: SNOC/Lim Weixiang)
Singapore players react with dismay after conceding a late winning goal to Vietnam at the SEA Games football competition. (PHOTO: SNOC/Lim Weixiang)

SINGAPORE — Call it a national pastime, a national hobby, even a national recreation. But it’s time to stop calling football the “national sport of Singapore” – at least until it has climbed out of its current doldrums.

Why? Because one must be filled with pride to associate a sport with his own country. And for at least the past decade, Singapore sports fans have treated football with disdain at best, embarrassment at worst.

The latest debacle by the Under-23 team at the SEA Games – in which they exited from the football competition with nary a whimper on Tuesday (3 November), without even a goal scored in their first four matches – was not treated with outrage and dissatisfaction.

Instead, there were only sniggers of derision or worse, indifference. The Facebook page Failing At Soccer – a pun on the acronym of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) – has had a field day mocking the Young Lions’ meek showings in Manila over the past week.

Well-prepared, yet performances not good enough

Here’s the galling thing about the Young Lions’ failure: it was not for lack of trying. In fact, a big chunk of FAS’ plan for 2019 was targeted at putting up a strong effort to end the Republic’s wait for a first-ever football gold at the SEA Games.

To that end, Fandi Ahmad’s young men were given every opportunity to train and play together in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). You cannot fault their preparation.

And yet, the abject performances – starting with a poor 0-0 draw against Laos, then a second-half capitulation to Indonesia, then going down 0-3 to Thailand by half-time, and then conceding a late winner to Vietnam – show that Singapore football is simply not good enough anymore.

So please: stop calling it our national sport.

Yes, football remains a hugely popular sport played and watched by many Singaporeans. On any given weekend, kids, teenagers and adults are all involved in kickabouts around the island, not to mention watching live football matches.

That’s all good as a pastime or hobby. But for football to be a national sport, it has to evoke a sense of wonder, and dreams of what might be.

Kids must be able to dream of playing the sport in front of a full house of cheering fans. Young adults must be able to feel that they can spend 10 or 20 years of their lives dedicated to be excellent in the sport. Senior citizens must be able to smile at the sweet memories of great performances they once witnessed.

Football, in its current state in Singapore, does little to evoke any of that. And it has been in this state for far longer than it should be.

AFF Cup wins paper over cracks in development

Defenders of the sport may argue that Singapore football won trophies as recently as 2012, when it clinched the AFF Suzuki Cup for the fourth time since 1998.

But a large part of the success was down to the astute and still-underrated management of then-national head coach Raddy Avramovic. He correctly sensed that the Lions were nowhere as skilled as their regional rivals, duly shaped a well-organised team that was hard to beat, and reaped considerable success.

Yet the success papered over the cracks in player development and succession amid the sport. And any continuation of the goodwill from those Cup victories was lost when Avramovic left and the FAS made two poor national coaching appointments in succession.

In 2013, it was Bernd Stange, whose idealistic vision of stylish “tiki-taka” football could not be executed by even the top national footballers. The German’s contract was not renewed in 2016, and in came former star player V. Sundram Moorthy. His brand of pragmatic football was so dour and ineffective that the Lions failed to win any competitive matches under him.

Six years of mediocrity, with a moribund domestic league which few ardently support or even care for, without a group of transcendent talents to root for – it is easy to see why football standards have slipped considerably.

Disservice to more deserving sports

Yet the FAS still calls it our national sport. In rebranding the then-S-League to the current SPL moniker in 2018, it stated in its media release that “the improvements to the league will make the national sport more entertaining and fast-moving to attract wider audiences”.

And it’s not just the FAS. Singapore Sports Hub’s then-CEO Oon Jin Teik, in declaring the National Stadium the oversized “home ground” of the Lions in 2018, said that “it's important to push the national sport to align with where Singapore wants it to go”.

As someone who has covered local football for almost two decades, I say: stop it, please. Just because it is widely played and regularly watched on TV does not make it a national sport. To deserve that label, it needs to achieve consistently.

Calling football a national sport is also a disservice to other sports which Singapore does well, such as swimming and bowling. They may not have as wide a participation rate as football, but they certainly bring more pride and joy to common Singaporeans, and deserve better recognition.

Furthermore, it places undue pressure on the current crop of footballers whenever they represent the nation. Lower those expectations, and maybe they can be rid of the derision that dogs them whenever they lose.

Not calling football a national sport would be a humble acknowledgement that it is nowhere near as inspirational as it was during its heyday in the 1970s and early 1990s.

Only then can the local football fraternity rebuild with realistic targets, unburdened by the baggage of its successful history and its numerous failures.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 17 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.

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