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Commentary

Singapore's football scene - warning signs were there long ago

There is a scar on my left knee that fills me with regret every time I look at it.

This unsightly thing, slightly smaller than a five-cent coin, started out as a tiny bug bite. But instead of treating it early, I procrastinated, ignoring the signs of danger and allowing an infection to set in and fester.

These days when I glance at my knee, I can't help thinking about the state of football in Singapore. Like my knee, I wonder, had closer attention been paid to the warning signs, would the sport find itself in the state it is in now?

Once champions of Malaysia and even Asean, there is little to cheer about Singapore football now.

Over the last two weeks, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has been gripped in a growing controversy over a little-known $500,000 donation which ended up with the Asean Football Federation. While there has been a debate over the intended recipient of the money, there is no debate over where it came from - amateur club Tiong Bahru FC.

The recent events surrounding Singapore football make for painful reading, but perhaps the best way to rebuild the sport is to have a complete overhaul.

Then came news of the Commercial Affairs Department's raids on the FAS offices in Jalan Besar, and the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru, Woodlands Wellington FC and Hougang United. These followed a police report made by national sports agency Sport Singapore about alleged misuse of club funds at Tiong Bahru FC and attempts to delay club audits.

For the casual observer, the news of the past week has come as a shock. But for those who have been following the domestic game closely, it is perhaps not so surprising. For if there is one thing that has been constant about football in this country over the past few years, it is that it has been plagued by controversy.

INFIGHTING

This seems to be tolerated at the FAS. Many will remember the spectacular fallout between SEA Games coach Aide Iskandar and national head coach Bernd Stange in 2015. Aide said Stange had made his job "unnecessarily challenging", undermining his decisions and forcing personnel changes. The FAS was aware of the two warring coaches, but did little to mend the relationship. Singapore's group-stage SEA Games exit on home soil was attributed to the coaches' clashing.

The falling out between the two high-profile coaches followed a similar feud between FAS general secretary Winston Lee and former president Zainudin Nordin.

It is understood that the relationship between the top two men at the FAS has been frosty since 2015, and continued to be so even after Mr Zainudin stepped down last year.

The pair have never confirmed a falling out. But on Twitter, Mr Zainudin has, since 2014, made regular mentions that he has been betrayed.

In February 2015, he tweeted: "Flabbergasted and devastated would be an understatement when one discover the real intent of years of deception by someone unfold right before your eyes. Hard and painful lesson. Nevertheless, lesson learnt."

More recently, Mr Zainudin has been tweeting statements such as "revenge is a dish best served cold" with the hashtag #betrayal. Six tweets with similar quotes carry the same hashtag. The tweets coincide with the drama of the FAS election and news that Mr Lee is set to leave the FAS soon after the April 29 polls.

SURPRISES

The Asian Football Confederation family prides itself on its solidarity and unity, and traditionally votes as a bloc. So it was surprising to learn that, Mr Zainudin, as Singapore's representative, was the only person from the AFC's 44 member associations to vote in favour of an election for three spots on Fifa's new governing council to proceed last year. The other 42 members (with one abstention) did not want the election to take place after a Qatari candidate was disqualified.

Singapore also seemed to have been taken by surprise when the Football Association of Malaysia decided to kick the LionsXII out of its top league in 2015, despite the FAS being confident that the Malaysians were happy with Singapore being back in Malaysian football.

POOR MANAGEMENT

But perhaps the biggest warning signs about the overall health of the sport here can be seen in the performances of the S-League and grassroots football.

Despite talk of caring more about players' welfare, many S-League clubs still continue to pay players for only 11 months of the year.

Support for grassroots football is still very much an afterthought, with just a handful of the nine S-League clubs concerned about youth development.

The FAS gave $250,000 to develop amateur football in the country, half of what the AFF received from Tiong Bahru.

The national team has also played badly and was knocked out in the group stages of the AFF Suzuki Cup in the last two editions. This is a sorry record for the four-time champions.

It is often said that the best way to rebuild something wobbly is to knock everything down and start from scratch, focusing on building a good foundation to get things right.

The recent events surrounding Singapore football make for painful reading, but perhaps the best way to rebuild the sport is to have a complete overhaul.

The events of the past week show that it is high time more people took note of what is happening in the game. From grassroots to upper management, there is much to fix. It is time we treated the problem before lasting damage is done.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Football scene - warning signs were there long ago'. Print Edition | Subscribe