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Commentary

Let's not waste this golden chance to make the S-League roar again

About two decades ago, I watched my first football match in a stadium - and what an occasion it was.

It was 1996, and I had accompanied my father to the Singapore Pools Football Association Cup final between Geylang United and the Singapore Armed Forces Football Club - at the National Stadium, no less.

I still remember the crammed carpark, the snaking queues, the roar of a crowd of more than 10,000 fans and getting excited every time the famous Fandi Ahmad got the ball.

 
 

That night, the football dream was ignited in the seven-year-old me. It is why, after failing to play professional football, I decided to do the next best thing - write about it.

Alas, how things have changed since that November night.

Instead of thousands, domestic league matches these days struggle to pull in crowds of 500 on match days. Flaying the local S-League even seems a fashionable exercise these days, with numerous parody accounts on social media detailing the failings of the local game.

So if a strong local league is what will gets fans back, then let the FAS and S-League know that by showing up in force this season.

Yet, after toiling for much of the last 20 years, there is renewed optimism among the football community that this season - the league's 21st - could be a game-changing one.

The ingredients are certainly there. For one thing, following the disbandment of the LionsXII players, the nation's best footballers are once again back in the S-League.

Then there is Tampines Rovers' signing of former Liverpool and Arsenal man Jermaine Pennant, the first truly high-profile name to grace the S-League.

It is a refreshing change to see the league making the headlines for the right reasons. Fans of the league will painfully recall the series of mis-steps in recent years, among them: using penalty kicks to decide drawn matches, fining the bottom two teams and introducing an age-restriction rule (which was eventually scrapped after it caused an uproar).

Which is why the time is ripe for everyone associated with the S-League to use this renewed interest in the league to turn its fortunes around.

Why settle for crowds of 500 at league matches when you can get thousands at a pre-season friendly, as was the case when Pennant played?

Why make competing in a foreign league the nation's priority when concentrating on one's own league has a far wider impact from elite football right down to the youth game?

But such a reversal of fortunes requires an effort by everyone.

First, from the Football Association of Singapore to make developing the domestic game a priority instead of harbouring ambitions of sending the best to compete in a foreign league or persisting with the idea of starting a regional league that is of questionable standard.

Clubs too have to play their part. Tampines have shown the benefits of dreaming big. So why can't others aim for similar marquee names? Why are only a handful of clubs working to build ties with the community and in turn draw fans to the stadium? They must realise that while fan interest may be high now, it will not last forever. And the question they must ask themselves is: How can we help ensure the fans remain interested?

But perhaps the biggest and most important act will have to come from you, me, the fan.

I will be the first to admit that over the years, like some fans, my interest in the league has waned, the prized S-League sticker book and diary consigned to the rubbish bin.

But if fans continue to shun the league despite the feel-good factor, this latest setback could be one the S-League will never recover from.

Football is nothing without fans, which is why each and every one of us has an important voice. It didn't take gimmicks like free half-time meals to win fans back. It was an old-fashioned recipe of quality footballers which got the excitement back.

So if a strong local league is what will get fans back, then let the FAS and S-League know that by showing up in force this season.

I still believe that, given the right ingredients, the league can still inspire the football dream in kids and bring families together. At least the seven-year-old in me hopes so.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Let's not waste this golden chance to make the league roar again'. Print Edition | Subscribe