COMMENTARY

Singapore needs to decide how serious it wants to be about football

It is amazing what elimination in the group stages of the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Cup can do.

Just two years ago, all seemed well with Singapore football. The Lions had just won a record fourth Asean title. They were invited to the Istana, hailed as heroes atop an open-top bus which was cheered on along Orchard Road.

Yet, here we are, two years on, with a vastly different mood surrounding the local game.

But has that much really changed in two years?

When you consider that the bulk of the 2012 AFF Cup winning team featured in this year's tournament? No.

When you consider the S-League is still very much an afterthought and struggles to get crowds of more than 1,000? No.

When you consider the Lions, as with their predecessors, have yet to make progress in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers? Definitely not.

And therein lies a fundamental problem with Singapore as a footballing nation. Yes, the AFF Cup may be an emotional yardstick to measure the success of Singapore football but it is an artificial barometer by which to gauge the health of the local game.

Perhaps, as a nation so deprived of success, we have made too much of winning a tournament contested by countries ranked 128th in the world and worse, when there were other, arguably more important, issues to focus on.

No footballing nation in the world can claim to be successful without one of two things - a vibrant domestic league or a comprehensive pipeline for producing top talents.

Asian champions Japan have both. Ditto for World Cup winners Germany and European winners Spain.

Yet, no one found it odd that the cheers for Singapore's 2012 Asean conquerors vanished almost as quickly as they appeared as players became afterthoughts in a forgotten local league.

No one thought it strange that despite the regional success at the senior level, the same could not be replicated at the age-group levels.

In Singapore, local football becomes part of the Singapore conversation only once every two years and that is our biggest problem.

Yet, no other sport can get 50,000 people to the Sports Hub, be it to watch the Lions or Brazil.

No other sport brings politicians and public together like when the Singapore national team play and win. No other sport can persuade a nation to stay up in the wee hours of the morning, make their way to community centres to catch World Cup action.

It is time we ask ourselves how serious we want to be about what is essentially the national game.

If we as a nation are happy with the occasional AFF Cup win, then by all means, business as usual.

But if we want to aim further, as the FAS' strategic plan suggests and the public demands, then wholesale changes, from mindset to football systems, need to be made.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is the lack of investment.

Japan, Australia and now even India have shown that to grow a vibrant local league, stars are needed, to draw both fans and sponsors while increasing the standard of the game.

David Beckham already makes regular pit stops to Singapore. Could he be persuaded to lace up the boots for three months of the S-League season? Would corporations be willing to pay him for those months when he could also be their spokesman?

This is a question the S-League should already be asking.

The FAS is a national sports association regularly deemed one of Singapore's best by Sport Singapore, yet it is expected to compete against others with a $10 million annual budget, which is slightly more than a quarter of Malaysia's ($35 million) and a fraction of Japan's ($264 million).

When even Indonesia is reportedly spending more than $100 million a year on football, it is akin to sending in nine players against 11, maybe less, every time a Singapore team competes on the global stage.

If that is all we expect from the game, then so be it. But if we demand more, then companies, fans, the Government, the FAS and the nation need to decide just how serious we are about raising standards.

At a time when Singapore's other athletes are winning medals on the world stage, AFF Cups just won't cut it anymore for what is supposed to be the national game.

marclim@sph.com.sg