Singapore Slings

On my summer trip to Asia, I managed to see a number of matches that were not part of the Nations Cup, but were instead matches in the local competitions. More than half of these were in Singapore. Singapore had failed to qualify for the Asian Cup, and decided to carry on its league programme.

A general view of the South East Asia region is that it is chaotic. There is a habit of not organising much in advance and to accept what life throws at you. The only exceptions to these rules are when it comes to results – either elections (which are closely controlled by the government), or sports events (for which there are always illegal betting concerns trying to effect the results). To a great extent, Singapore is not like the rest of the region, and life is far more organised there. There are far more laws in this small island state as well; so for example – in the only country where you may feel safe to cross the road – jay-walking is illegal! When Singapore first became independent from British rule, it started out as part of Malaysia, but Singapore broke away from its larger neighbour after about two years. Naturally, with everything else under control, election results in Singapore are not left to chance, and the country is not immune from the spectre of betting scandals.

Both under British rule and afterwards, and even after Singapore had become a state in its own right, Singapore played in Malaysian football competitions – so while there was a Singaporean league, this was a minor competition. The more important contests were for the Malaysian League and Malaysia Cup, in which Singapore entered as a state, playing against the states of Malaysia (and incidentally, Brunei as well).

This broke down in 1994, which should have been one of the great seasons for Singapore. They won the league and then followed it up with a Malaysia Cup victory. In the final, they beat Pahang by 4-0 with Abbas Saad – a Lebanese born Australian international scoring a hat-trick. But soon afterwards, news of a betting scandal broke, the guilty parties came from both Malaysia and Singapore – over thirty players were arrested. On Singapore though, the feeling was that they were being unjustly blamed, even though it was a Singapore court that convicted Saad for his part (he was fined S$50,000) and FIFA banned him for two years. Singapore used this as an excuse to pull out of Malaysian competition and to promote their own league, which was re-launched as the S-League two years later.

Singapore is a highly populated country, around 4.5 million people on an island not a lot larger than the Isle of Wight. This requires serious housing projects to accommodate everyone. The result is a series of townships, all apparently out of the same mould – low rise apartment blocks fanning outwards from a central hub. The hub will have a shopping centre, and transport facilities, (a station on the MRT, plus local buses). Every one of these townships has an array of community facilities, such as schools, churches (these are the only things that are racially or religiously segregated in Singapore), and of course leisure facilities. This does tend to mean that almost all the leisure centres look the same at first glance. A stadium with the football pitch within a running track – a main stand running the full length of one side, while opposite, and also perhaps beyond the curves and behind the goals – a few rows of uncovered seats built on to a metal scaffold. The main stand provides the only cover, and about two thirds of the seats are bare concrete – with just a section for VIPs in the centre. (One of the differences is that at some grounds anyone appears to be allowed into the central seats, whereas others are limited to invites only – meaning that they stay empty!).

Since being launched in the aftermath of the 94 scandal, the Singapore League (or S-League, as the marketing team have named it), has provided the only outlet for professional football on the Island. It currently consists of 12 teams, each of which has its own stadium in one or another of the townships mentioned. Crowds are quoted as around 1500 to 2500 for most matches – but the reality is somewhat different when you arrive at the stadiums. Only around 400 paying spectators turn out for each game, the rest of the number being made up of allocated complimentary tickets issued to the league or club sponsors. Few of these are ever taken up. It says something for the administration of Singapore football, that with gate receipts barely enough to pay a single players wages, they can find enough sponsorship to run a professional league. Most of this appears to be the work of the Football Association of Singapore. Club budgets anyway are strictly controlled, and there is no scope for a club to raise its own money to try and buy better players. The teams play each other three times during a season, which runs from March until about November or December. There are always a few short breaks when the players are required for international tournaments, or during holiday periods. The entire of the Singapore national team plays within the league. Teams are allowed to recruit four foreigners – and most have the number allowed, with a fare mixture of Africans, Europeans and South Americans dotted around. The only foreign internationals appear to be a couple of members of the Thai National side..

While most of the complimentary tickets are never seen, I did manage to get one for one game. It was the wet season in Singapore, and this normally means a very humid day, followed by a storm at dusk, the storms normally last around two hours, but tend to come around the start time of matches. So at Wellington Woodlands, I arrived in a heavy shower of rain, and was unimpressed to find I would have to venture out into the weather to find the ticket booth. A food seller than said he had comp tickets, but I had to buy some food from him. I said I did not want the food, but would pay the S$5 that a ticket would normally cost. This was turned down – apparently against the rules – so instead I had to buy the food and get a free ticket – the food cost S$3.50.

The big advantage for the groundhopping traveller is the league schedule – never more than two matches on a day (always evening kick-offs), and generally five or six fixtures dates per week. There are disadvantages, though; while a groundhopper may love to travel to different places, the point is lost when all the places look the same, and all the stadia are almost identical. The other disadvantage is the football is of a uniform quality – which is poor. Now, while I do not really mind watching a relatively low quality of football – I see a lot of low level non-League after all – and I believe that the commitment makes for a reasonable level of entertainment, even without the quality – in Singapore, there is a general lack of entertainment. I would say that only two of the six games I saw on this tour were worth the entrance money!

As I have said, Singapore consists of a series of townships, many with stadiums, and the clubs use these stadiums. However, only half of the clubs have a name which implies they are from these townships – and one of these (Geylang) do not play in the area they take their name from. Three more clubs belong to Singapore institutions – Singapore Armed Forces FC speaks for itself. Home United represents various departments concerned with home security –such as the Police and the Customs service, while the Young Lions is supposedly the national U-23 team. None of these trio are what they seem though – some national U-23 players play for other teams, while the Young Lions still includes its allocation of foreigners. The Armed Forces and Home teams also include foreigners, and are just professional football teams, although one or two of the Armed Forces players may be doing their national service. The final three teams are even more obscure – two have club names – but the clubs concerned are in China and Japan, the third is called Korean Super Reds. At least these have a clear provenance; each is made up with mainly young players, and these teams have 100% foreigners – all coming from the country of the teams origin. The idea has been running in Singapore for some time, although it does not appear very successful. All the clubs have an ‘official supporters club’, mainly youngsters who wear the colours and bang a drum during the match. Korean Super-Reds have only managed to recruit a lone drummer. There is little sign that a grounding in the Singapore league is enough to secure a professional contract back home, and the only members of these teams known to have stayed in professional football when changing clubs are still in Singapore.

Oddly, it is not just the clubs that have foreign players in Singapore – the national team has taken some of the on as well. The various football authorities are quite concerned that International football could be compromised by a number of players changing their nationality and then becoming members of the national teams. They say it is OK if players change nationalities for other reasons, and then become national players, but not if the player concerned changes only for football reasons. The test is whether a player stays in his adopted country after his football career is over, but by then it is too late to rule on his eligibility. The habit is becoming widespread, especially in Asia, with a notable example being Qatar’s Uruguayan striker, Sebastian Quintana (he scored all his country’s goals in the tournament). The Singapore team includes an Englishman who changed nationality only after marrying a local girl, but also includes a number of players who came to the country first of all as foreign players in the league, and then only changed nationality when included in an FAS scheme. The scheme is required because players wages are firmly regulated and foreigners get paid more than locals, and basically gives those who change nationality the advantages they would have as foreigners (free of subsidised housing and more money). Personally, I think this will have a limited effect on the national team, as the players concerned still play in the Singapore league – but while they were not good enough to reach the Asian cup finals, the policy did pay off in last winters South East Asian Cup, which Singapore won.

So to finish, a summary of my games in Singapore, the first of which saw Korean Super Reds playing Tampines Rovers. The Koreans are rock bottom of the table, but still gave a good account of themselves against one of the leaders. The Yishun stadium is a very typical as described already. Generally, the game was never over exciting, and we had to wait for the last ten minutes before we had any goals – Tampines took the lead with just 8 minutes to go, but Super Reds got a penalty in the 89th minute. Jeon Hyojoon hot the post with this, but the ball was passed back into the area, for Hyojoon to eventually score! This match was played on the Tuesday when I was between Ho Chi Minh City and Palembang. Returning a week later, it was cup week. The Singapore Cup involves all 12 of the league teams, plus four invited foreign clubs – one from Cambodia, one from Brunei and two from Thailand. All matches, though are played in Singapore, and only Bangkok University took foreign participation into the second round. Before seeing them, though I went to see the Armed Forces at Choa Chu Kang. This ground is not quite typical, the main stand being a little larger, and the rest of the ground being out of bounds, with no more seats. It was a second leg tie, with the Armed Forces already 4-2 up, but we had a really fun time, right from an opening penalty which the Gombak keeper saved, then saved another shot from the rebound, only to concede to the third shot. Both sides threw everything forward throughout, and on a wet surface, most went in. The final score was 5-3 (9-5 on aggregated). Two of Gombak’s goals were scored by Thersdek Chaiman, who had played in the Asian cup for Thailand. The following day (a Tuesday), I saw Bangkok University play Balestier Khalsa on Balestier’s Tao Payoh ground (one of the typical ones). Balestier play a direct style with one tactic only – pass to the foreigners. Their Japanese striker put them 1-0 up, but they were undone by the wing play of the visitors, (it seems to me that few Singapore teams use their wingers much). By coincidence, one of the University wingers was also Japanese, and he scored the first two goals in a 3-1 win. I also saw they second leg, played on Friday at Jelan Besar. Every Friday, there is a game televised and this always takes place at the Jelan Besar ground, which belongs to the FA of Singapore. The ground is also the home of Young Lions in the league. This stadium has no track, with stands square along both sides, but nothing behind the goals. It also boasts an artificial pitch. Despite the University dominating the second game as well, they went down 1-0 – not enough to stop them reaching the semi-final. The following day I was off to Jakarta for the Asian Cup final, but on Monday I was back in Singapore for two more days of league action. The Woodlands Stadium, (Woodlands Wellington) and the Bedok Stadium (Geylang United) are both typical, although Bedok has seating inside the track behind the goals, and some of the support also makes use of a grass bank behind the open seating. Both games were dull, with Woodlands drawing 1-1 against Sengkang Punggol, while Geylang and Balestier Khalsa drew without troubling the scorer. This is a pity for Geylang, who have more support than most other teams, and support that appears to be more committed to their team as well. While most teams in the league have been recently manufactured, Geylang were one of the mainstays of the amateur leagues that preceded the S-League. One could only feel that such support deserves a better team.