2016 S-League season kicks off today

Football: Wider level of interest as X-factors kick in

The new S-League season starts tonight and fans agree that there are many reasons to be optimistic. The once-forgotten S-League is buzzing again. For the first time in more than a decade, Singapore's domestic league is back in the limelight. From the signing of a former Premier League player, to the return of the nation's best, there is something quite different about this season.

The fans

Some attribute it to the signing of Jermaine Pennant. Others hail the return of Singapore's top footballers. Even the prospect of seeing Fandi Ahmad's sons in action has been cited as a reason for the sudden surge of interest in Singapore's domestic football scene.

Football fever is rarely, if ever, linked with the S-League. But, as the once-neglected competition begins its 21st edition today, there is a sense among fans that this season could be the one in which fans' interest in the domestic game really heats up.

 
 

Crucially, it is not just the usual group of ardent S-League fans who are excited. The new season has whetted the interest of a wider spectrum of supporters.

English Premier League fans will be keen to watch Pennant, a former Arsenal and Liverpool player, in action. In addition, the disbanding of the LionsXII and the subsequent return of their players to the S-League could also draw in supporters of the former Malaysia Super League team.

The increasing interest in the S-League is vindication for long-time supporters, whose faithfulness has frequently been subjected to taunts from others.

Hougang United fan Syed Syafiq, 23, a full-time National Serviceman, noted: "In the past, some friends would say that the S-League is too slow and it's like child's play.

"But this year, I'm surprised because there are some friends who normally support EPL teams, but now they say they want to support an S-League club and come down to watch the games."

Home United supporter Daniel Lau has tried in vain to convince his friends to watch games for the past 13 years, but the 22-year-old Nanyang Technological University undergraduate believes that this season will be a game-changer.

He said: "Some friends said this season seems more exciting, so it shows that more people will follow (local football)."

Kevin Sia, 35, who stopped attending S-League matches in 2004, will return to watch Monday's match between Pennant's Tampines and Geylang International.

The manager at an asset management firm said: "I'm going with an open mind and I want to see if things have changed. When I last saw the games in 2004, the atmosphere and football were good.

"So I'm giving it another shot. If the first game is disappointing, I think I will just watch the rest of the games on TV."

While star signing Pennant has generated much of the pre-season buzz, the appeal is not just about him alone.

Home United's signing of Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi, the two eldest sons of Singapore legend Fandi Ahmad, have also piqued the interest of Tampines fan Zand Zainal.

Said the 32-year-old construction safety officer: "Fandi's sons played well at the Lion City Cup last year, and it'll be exciting to see how both of them play together at Home."

Even the former LionsXII players, who played in the Malaysian league from 2012 to 2015, have created enough appeal in four years to draw Malaysian fans to make a trip across the Causeway.

Garena Young Lions supporter Azwan Awan, 19, said: "I have some Malaysian friends who said they want to come here to watch Faris Ramli play."

But while interest in the league is at its highest level in recent years, loyal fans are worried that this might be difficult to sustain throughout the season. They are calling for greater commitment by new fans to support the S-League, through thick and thin.

Pastry chef Alvin Tan, 52, who attends the Young Lions' training sessions and friendly games on top of their usual league fixtures, said: "In the first few matches, you will see a lot of fans because the hype is still strong. But it's more important that they are patient enough to see the standard improve, and keep on coming to support teams and fill the seats."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Wider level of interest as X-factors kick in'. Print Edition | Subscribe