Is women's football a neglected sport in Singapore?

Fit To Post Sports
Members of Japan's national team warm up during a training session in Vancouver, British Columbia on July 4, 2015, on the eve of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup final

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. In 1999, he was among the core group of journalists who helped launch Channel NewsAsia, where he covered sport for several years. He had also worked at the former Singapore Sports Council. Follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports for his views on sport in Singapore.  

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The most successful team sport in Singapore is played by women.

Our national netballers not only won the South-east Asian (SEA) Games gold last month, they have clinched the last two Asian championships. Throughout half a century of Singapore's independence, no other major team sport in Singapore has successfully scaled the summit of Asia.

So what happens when you combine women with Singapore's most popular sport, football? Unfortunately, you end up with a national team that seems to have been neglected by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) for the past couple of years.

The Lionesses are now a far cry from what they used to be in 1985, when they won the silver in the inaugural women's football event at the SEA Games. Since then, Singapore has never reached the semi-finals, let alone win any medal.

Possible lessons from recent Women's World Cup

The seventh FIFA Women's World Cup ended two days ago at Vancouver's iconic BC Place Stadium, with defending champion Japan being dethroned by the United States in a shocking 5-2 result in the final.

The first five editions of the competition were won by either European or North American teams. But the Japanese broke that domination four years ago by beating the Americans in the final.

The Nadeshiko's historic 2011 World Cup triumph shows that Asians can also excel globally. But does the Japanese women's footballing prowess offer any lessons for our women's national team?

It could be argued that Japan's success has little relevance for the Lionesses. After all, the Japanese have a vastly different sporting culture. Japan enjoys a much stronger tradition of international sporting conquests than the Republic.

The same could be said of the other two East Asian teams at the Canada World Cup — China, which reached the quarter-finals; and South Korea, which progressed to the Round of 16.

ASEAN teams' exploits offer more relevant lessons

But how about Thailand? Surely, the success story of a fellow ASEAN country has much relevance for Singapore. The Thais qualified for the global football festival for the first time by clinching Asia's fifth and last World Cup spot.

Although Thailand suffered 0-4 defeats by 1995 world champion Norway and two-time champion Germany, the best South-east Asian team secured a 3-2 victory over Ivory Coast. Eventually, the Thais were placed 17th in Canada, missing out on the Round of 16 due to an inferior goal difference compared to Sweden.

Regardless of how Thailand performed, crucially an ASEAN country has reached the Women's World Cup finals. This suggests that Singapore too can excel. Even if the Republic cannot emulate Thailand on the global stage, the Lionesses should be considering continental challenges.

There's another indication South-east Asians can do very well in women's football. Thailand defeated Vietnam in the fifth-placing match at last year's Asian Cup to secure Asia's last World Cup spot. This means an ASEAN team is top among all Asian countries that didn't reach the recent World Cup finals.

What can Singapore do?

For a start, the FAS must stop repeating what it has been doing to women's football for the past couple of years.

Singapore didn't qualify for last year's Women's Asian Cup finals. Why not? Because the FAS didn't even field a team for the Asian Cup qualifiers. How does a national team improve by being shielded from international competition?

Perhaps Singapore isn't ready to navigate those huge continental waves. So how about the calmer waters in South-east Asia? Sadly, the Lionesses haven't competed in the ASEAN Women's Championship since 2013, while Singapore's last participation in SEA Games women's football was in 2003.

When the Lionesses were left out of the 2013 SEA Games, a concerned Singaporean raised the issue publicly. In its response, the FAS said: "We are ... preparing our women’s team to participate in the 2015 SEA Games."

So one would have expected the Lionesses to be participants at the recent SEA Games on home soil. But Singapore's Games organisers gave women's football the boot, only the third time in 20 years the sport was excluded, thus denying the Lionesses much-needed competitive exposure.

It's time the national football body pays adequate attention to the women's game.

Fortunately, the FAS appears to have finally woken up from a two-year slumber. It recently decided to field the Lionesses in the current Luen Thai Cup tournament in Hong Kong, giving our women's national team its first taste of international action in over two years.

The FAS has said that its "main aim is to prepare a (women's) team for the 2017 (SEA) Games in Malaysia". We'll wait and see whether 2017 will be the Lionesses' first SEA Games since their last in 2003.