Football: 'Not even Messi can save the S-League'

Jermaine Pennant during a break in training yesterday at Jalan Besar Stadium ahead of tomorrow's Singapore Cup final. Behind him are Billy Mehmet (left) and Tampines captain Fahrudin Mustafic.
Jermaine Pennant during a break in training yesterday at Jalan Besar Stadium ahead of tomorrow's Singapore Cup final. Behind him are Billy Mehmet (left) and Tampines captain Fahrudin Mustafic.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

From scoring a hat-trick on his full Arsenal debut to spending 30 days in prison for drink-driving, it is fair to say Jermaine Pennant is used to grabbing headlines wherever he goes.

Yesterday, the winger was at it again, wrapping up his nine-month Singapore adventure here with an assessment for the ages.

Finding himself in football's wilderness in the S-League, he tells The Straits Times even the best player in the world now cannot raise the standard in Singapore.

Not even Lionel Messi.

Asked if he had done enough to revive the ailing S-League, he replied: "All I can do is go out there and play my best and hopefully create a buzz. But it needs more than that, you can't just expect me to come here and change everything.

 

"No matter who you get, you could bring Messi here, yes, you'd attract fans but without money, and the government and the league helping out like they do with other sports, or what they do in other countries, it's not going to grow.

I CAN'T BE THE SAVIOUR

All I can do is go out there and play my best and hopefully create a buzz. But it needs more than that, you can't just expect me to come here and change everything.

JERMAINE PENNANT, on the limited impact he had on the S-League and calling for more support from all quarters.

"If they don't do anything, football is always going to be in a comfort zone, not progressing."

To be fair, Messi, arguably the world's best player with endorsement earnings of around US$28 million (S$39 million), would probably attract more investment than a 33-year-old whose most notable piece of silverware is a Champions League runners-up medal.

But Pennant, once English football's most expensive teenager, has a point.

While league attendances spiked initially, with local and foreign media tracking his early days closely, nothing significant was done to sustain the buzz. Plans to bring back the Marquee Player Scheme, which provides subsidies for clubs to sign star players, fizzled out.

Tampines also ran into cash-flow problems after a sponsor pulled out and the club had also decided to stop running jackpot machines, a huge source of revenue for clubs.

Stags chairman Krishna Ramachandra tried to attract sponsors but encountered challenges on the sponsorship trail.

Reflecting on all the travails, Pennant said: "We know the club stretched out the budget to sign me but we thought in the long term, with investors and maybe the Marquee Player Scheme, things would sort itself out."

He also felt Singapore football could do with more professionalism, such as clubs having a proper training ground, fixed schedules and good pitches to play on.

"Having a field with nice grass and no sand, that can be a start. I'm sure it's not difficult to have nice pitches in Singapore, one of the wealthiest countries in the world," said Pennant.

"Things like that could help a team. I'm not moaning, I've no problems with washing my own kit if I have to, but it's just different in Europe."

Results-wise, there was not much to show for. With a squad boasting Pennant and several Singapore internationals, the Stags were expected to challenge on all fronts, but could end up trophyless.

When told that some fans expected more from him, he said: "I understand where they're coming from but you need more than one player in the team to win a lot of games.

"There's only so much I can do. I can't stop people from scoring. If we score three goals but concede four there's not much I can do."

That aside, Pennant, who lives in a condominium unit at Bedok Reservoir Road, said he loved his time here.

"I made some great friends, friends I'll stay in touch with for sure. The people are very friendly, they made me feel welcome. I get stopped a lot for pictures which is fine," said the Nottingham-born player. "On that front I've really enjoyed it and I'd rate it very high, maybe a B+ or even an A-."

Pennant could still end his stint here with a trophy, in tomorrow's Singapore Cup final against Albirex Niigata. Tampines will need him to do what he does best - make another bold statement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline ''Not even Messi can save the S-League''. Print Edition | Subscribe