SINGAPORE - The Kallang Roar, and football fans, finally returned to the National Stadium on Sunday (Dec 5) as the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup kicked off with the largest gathering of spectators - a sell-out crowd of almost 10,000 - since the Covid-19 pandemic.
By the time hosts Singapore took on Myanmar in the second Group A match of the day at 8.45pm after Thailand had beaten Timor-Leste 2-0 in the earlier game, the stadium was close to its allowed capacity of 10,000.
While the number was less than 20 per cent of the arena's 55,000 capacity owing to safe management measures, it was the largest turnout allowed for an event after last week's concert by pop star JJ Lin. He performed before 2,000 fans at the Sands Theatre under vaccination-differentiated safe management measures, which allowed concertgoers to sit alongside one another without the need for social distancing.
Mr Faizal Jaffar, a 40-year-old teacher, said: "Two years is a long time to not be able to watch our national team 'live' and it feels good to be back despite the restrictions, which we understand are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.
"Maybe because it is not a full house, the process to get into the stadium was actually quite smooth and fast."
All ticket holders must show proof of vaccination to gain entry, after which they have to sit in twos in sectors of no more than 500 people, with 1m safe distancing between pairs and no mingling allowed across sectors.
This is enforced through the use of coloured wrist tags, which also serve as identification that allows re-entry into the stadium on a given match day.
The football buzz at Kallang began as early as 9am at the Singapore Sports Hub as families and fans took part in activities at the AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 Community Football Activation Zone, which will be open on match days at the National Stadium until Jan 1.
At the zone, the public will be able to experience and participate in football drills and challenges in virtual reality and shooting challenges, as well as watch the National Teqball Challenger Cup and Singapore Panna Competition live.
The opening ceremony kicked off in the evening with a tribute to front-line workers across Asean for their efforts in combating the coronavirus over the last two years. Fans were also treated to the sight of 300 drones lighting up the night sky by depicting the flags of the 10 participating nations.
In the stands, the fans were a colourful sight as they brandished their respective national flags and mobile phone flashlights, roaring on their teams despite the banning of drums.
Also among the crowd were football dignitaries such as Fifa president Gianni Infantino, Asean Football Federation president Khiev Sameth, Football Association of Singapore president Lim Kia Tong and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, as well as former national captains Nazri Nasir and Shahril Ishak.
Judging from the cheers and roars that rippled through the stands on Sunday, fans clearly relished the return of live football and crowds. Singapore last hosted an event of such magnitude in October 2019, when 12,547 spectators watched the Lions lose 3-1 to Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium.
Mr Jeremy Wong, a 38-year-old IT specialist, said: "It is not exactly the same as before. Obviously the atmosphere is less boisterous compared to if there were a full house, and the absence of food and drinks didn't help.
"But just like in football, life is about adapting to challenges, and in the current pandemic, it's heartening to see all the effort put in place to make this event and all the fringe activities happen."
The return of sport in recent months also saw 4,000 runners taking part in the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon's in-person races over the weekend, and sports fans can also catch the ongoing World Table Tennis Cup Finals, which is open to 900 fans at the OCBC Arena.