DO we really know football in Singapore or do those who manage the No 1 sport ever kick a ball, for God’s sake?

I just cannot believe it, lah!

This probably never ever happens in any professional football league on this planet, except the S-League.

Just 21 days to the start of the 22nd season, there’s no fixture list.

Take a shameful bow, Football Association of Singapore (FAS), this is the biggest internal and international disgrace in sports.

 

While the nine clubs, including two foreign clubs (Albirex Niigata and Brunei DPMM), are somewhat prepared to have another go at another season, the FAS is in ultra-sleep mode without offering the basic element of who’s playing who.

This is what happens when you have a FAS Transitional Council, headed by Lim Kia Tong, in place who appears just not interested to fire up the fans and possibly to allow the S-League to die a natural death on the first month of the 125th anniversary.

Sounds criminal, in a sporting sense, as the S-League fans and friends are just biting their finger nails to know when, where, why, what, how the matches will be played.

More drama comes along the corridors of the FAS headquarters that S-League Chief Executive Officer Lim Chin has thrown in his towel but doing an extended token continuance for another three months, until end of March.

Writing for FourFourTwo, Football analyst Neil Humphreys said: “A missing fixture list with three weeks to go is pretty much par for the course. The bar has been set so low for so long that exasperated followers wearily accept levels of ineptitude that simply wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

“In a country where a train breakdown encourages Tweeters to send their heartfelt thoughts and prayers to delayed commuters, the distinct levels of tolerance only further underline the third world football reality buried within a first world nation.”

Even the S-League official website is more comical. It showed the opening two games of the season on the fixtures page: Defending champion Albirex Niigata plays Tampines Rovers on February 26 at the National Stadium. It’s a tie that doubles up as both season-opener and Charity Shield and on the following night, Home United presumably host Garena Young Lions at Bishan Stadium.

MISSING FROM WEBSITE

But like a Houdini flash, these two solitary fixtures mysteriously vanished from the official website not long after they appeared, leaving only the results from the 2016 campaign!

Humphreys goes on: “They later reappeared, but not every link worked and a convoluted Lewis Carroll-esque expedition down rabbit holes and through looking glasses followed until the fixtures were finally rediscovered. See for yourself. But only if you’re losing the will to live. Of course, long-standing S-League sufferers are no strangers to confusion, disorganisation and a paucity of basic information.”

Clearly, the S-League has been marginalised with news evoking out of Jalan Besar Stadium solely on when is the much-delayed FAS democratic elections, which for the first time in over three decades, will determine a new future for what is supposed to be the only sport that can united a little island.

Football-fanatic deacon Matthew Kang, Chairman of the New Creation Church and a gentleman known for his thought-provoking preacher liners, describes the predicament as a “S-League Kosong”!

“This is disappointing and this is not something we can expect and accept of a professional league that has been around for more than 20 years! It’s a reflection of bad planning. Otherwise the truth needs to be told why the fixtures are missing with just three weeks to go,” says Kang, who was the former Vice Chairman of the now-defunct Tanjong Pagar United.

Tongue-in-cheek, he adds: “Kopi kosong, that means no sugar no milk. Now we have S-League Kosong! Normally when someone has some form of sickness, he will opt for kopi kosong. Now we have S-League Kosong.”

SHODDY PREPARATIONS

Founder-Director of Act 3 Theatrics, R. Ramachandra, who is famous for hosting children theatrics, and supports (now defunct) Woodlands Wellington, says: “The first two seasons were awesome. It has been downhill since. I say this with sadness. Currently, the planning and administration of Singapore football is in a very sad state. So, this unpreparedness isn’t surprising to me.”

Also shaking his head disappointingly is former FAS general secretary Steven Yeo. He says: “There’s no excuse to be so shoddy with three weeks to go. The S-League & FAS staff are not in the run for the FAS elections, so they should get the behind-the-scenes elements in good order very much earlier with the interim leadership of the FAS Transitional Council.

“It’s just not fair to the players, coaches, managers and clubs, not missing out on the fans. I’m just shocked!”

Former FAS Council Member and Past President of Tampines Rovers, one of Singapore’s oldest clubs founded in the 1940s, George Pasqual, says: “Strange. Don’t venues have to be booked in advance? Did the FAS do their homework early to make sure such a mess doesn’t happen? It’s very questionable if schedule is not ready at this stage. The organisers can’t be that complacent or incompetent to delay the schedule for some reason or other three weeks before start.”

Freelance journalist Gary Koh, in his early 30s, adds: “The inconsistency in delivering the fixtures early. One season they are able to put it early – two months before the kickoff, which was in 2015 or 2016. But usually for some reasons, the fixtures aren’t able to be produced well before the start. The lack of consistent implementation is truly baffling.”

Lawyer Alfred Dodwell, who hopes to contest in the upcoming FAS elections, truly shot from the hips: “The same level of incompetence is evident from this interim team. Can we trust them to run FAS and bring it to a better place?

“The answer is as the saying going: The proof is in the pudding. Here, the pudding is not even rising in the oven and remains a dismal show all around.”

Dodwell, the legal adviser of Islandwide League (IWL) club Gymkhana FC, has this sober advice for football fans: “If the affiliates want to see better tomorrow, they must exercise their vote for a better team with fresh new ideas and perspective.”

For the record, the FAS democratic elections will be historic as 46 FAS affiliates will decide the new football leaders. They are from nine S-League clubs, 10 National Football League (NFL) clubs, 14 Islandwide League (IWL) clubs and 13 other smaller amateur organisations.

Tampines Rovers chairman Krishna Ramachandra, in his second season, remains optimistic, aspiring for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. He says: “I have trust and faith in the system and administration. More so for us we are fully aware of our AFC fixtures, which are critical, before the start of the new S-League.” Tampines, the five-time S-League champion, plays Malaysia’s Felda United on Feb 21 in their Group G opener in the AFC Cup.

PENNANT FACTOR

Ironically, Krishna, a corporate lawyer, was singularly responsible for signing former Arsenal and Liverpool star striker Jermaine Pennant, outside of the Marquee Player Scheme, and it did generate a fair bit of excitement initially. The “Pennant Effect” provided a fleeting and tantalising glimpse of what a dash of continental glamour could do.

Pennant however carried a long-standing injury but his presence helped to draw more than 1,200 fans to a pre-season friendly and more than 3,500 people to a top-of-the-table clash with Home United – the highest attendance of last season. He has now moved on to English League One club Bury FC.

But here’s an adoring lesson to learn from Tampines’ Pennant experiment. It did hammer home drive a thought-provoking point that just one marquee signing is insufficient to see an upturn in standards for the entire league.
In simple words, for the Marquee Player Scheme to succeed, more Pennant-quality players are needed throughout the league, by finding the right sponsors and stakeholders who believe in the longer-term dream to bring back the famous “Kallang Roar” of the mid-1970s, when Singaporeans went crazy over football-mania.

Unfortunately, looking at the depressing mood at FAS management, this is a pipe dream for most clubs, as money is hard to come by, simply because the alluring “product” is missing in quality play and performance.

Perhaps privitisation is the key to a new S-League future. Presently, the clubs are registered as societies and largely rely on annual subsidies to run their operations. If the clubs meet certain targets and key performance indicators throughout the season, they can receive up to S$800,000. These subsidies are dependent on the amount of funding the S-Lreceives from the Tote Board each season.

But touching my heart, I must say that over the years, shoddy financial management has led to the closure of several clubs such as Sporting Afrique, Sinchi FC and Super Reds FC, while also forcing the likes of Woodlands Wellington, Tanjong Pagar United, Jurong FC and Gombak United to sit out the past few seasons.

NO EXCITEMENT

Former S-League midfielder Rhysh Roshan Rai of Home United fame, says in a recent interview with TODAY that he believes that the fate of the S-League boils down to one word: Excitement.

“I would like to see us stop being apathetic towards the S-League, but it’s very difficult for people to get excited about something that, in reality, isn’t much to be excited about,” says the 31-year-old football analyst and commentator, whose father, Hakikat Rai, was a famous sportsman and endearing journalist with The Straits Times. “As a fan, I just want something to excite me, and that’s basically the main job of the next CEO.”
In my book, perhaps the only club seriously tuned and fired up to offer entertaining football is defending champion Albirex Niigata, based at the Jurong West Stadium. I only wish the other clubs take a leaf out of the professional book of the Japanese folks, who have been positively engaging and giving back to their local community.

Since 2012, the White Swans (nickname of Albirex Niigata) have been donating S$1 to Yuhua Community Sports Club for every spectator that turns up at Jurong East Stadium for their matches. Albirex regularly draw more than 1,000 spectators to their matches. To date, they have donated S$75,000. Last November, they also announced that they were setting up a sports development fund from their own cash resources for grooming young local players from the Yuhua constituency, where the club are based. Two players will be selected for a training stint in Japan every year.
Hougang chairman Bill Ng, a shrewd money-minded businessman, believes the S-League and its clubs should strive towards self-sustainability.

“Like it or not, the engine room of a football club is its income, and learning to be self-sufficient is something that is key for local clubs,” he says. “I believe subsidies only work during the infancy of a club. After more than 20 years in the S-League, we should no longer always rely on handouts to run our operations.”
The S-League, in my opinion, resembles a grossly neglected run-down, leaky ship that has veered off-course for several years and the professional league is now in dire need of serious repair and a new direction. The problems plaguing the S-League are differingly complex, and a quick solution may be beyond the new man at the helm.
Just glance at the sorry attendances which have been dwindling for years. Average crowds numbered in the mere hundreds, with the biggest matches enjoying fewer than 1,500 spectators.

“The problem facing the S-League is very simple, the people are just not interested,” says Tampines Rovers die-fan Chris Harvey, an Englishman who has been based in Singapore for 25 years. “Then you ask, why are they not interested? Because they have lost connection with it.”

LIM CHIN
Let’s not throw total blame on retiring CEO Lim Chin, a former Colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), who was Chief of Artillery, who has been at the helm for five years. I know him, personally and professionally, and believe me, he’s given his best shot, considering the token support he has received from the FAS. This is the blunt truth.
Lim Chin has been widely regarded as a hands-on and hard-working administrator, who from dawn to dusk has been trying to salvage a sinking S-League since 2012. His tenure was also severely hindered by the FAS’ LionsXII project, which took the S-League’s top local players to play in the Malaysia Super League (MSL).
He was not available for comment. But at 9.00pm after I had filed this article, Lim Chin sent me this SMS: “The S-League were released to the clubs this afternoon. This season the fixtures has to take into consideration the recently concluded Asian Cup Qualifiers draw on Jan 23 and related National Team requests as well as availability of stadiums due to other sporting events. We like to thank the stakeholders for their patience especially the fans and look forward to their support for the matches this season.”

I believe the new FAS council, to be democratically elected after three decades, also needs to make the S-League a priority. This has been the foremost internal neglect in recent years. If they don’t change the football ecosystem, then it will not matter who they bring in as the new CEO.

“The S-League will never be more than what it is now,” warns Patrick Ang, who was chairman of Geylang International from 1986 to 2012, and a former national team manager. “Over the years, if we had done (the league) properly, we would by now have a product that the sponsors will come (and pay for).”
So many unanswered questions for the fans, friends and stakeholders to ponder if it is worth coming to watch the new season or to throw their sponsorship money in a cagey economy to a professional league that can barely walk straight.

No point pointing the fingers, perhaps show it to the heavens as God can probably offer the only silent answer to why the FAS continues to keep the football fraternity in a nail-biting predicament with total disinterest to fire away the 22nd season.

Especially, during an auspicious year when the FAS celebrates its 125th anniversary as the oldest affiliate of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

God help FAS. God save the S-League. Amen.

Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who was on the board of S-League club Tampines Rovers when the S-League started in 1969.