Football: Long-awaited SPL resumption gives fans something to cheer about

Tampines Rovers fan Pang Jia Tai (fifth from right) at a match at a packed Our Tampines Hub last year.
Tampines Rovers fan Pang Jia Tai (fifth from right) at a match at a packed Our Tampines Hub last year.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAMPINES ROVERS

SINGAPORE - Just as he came out of a work meeting last Friday (Oct 9), Tampines Rovers fan Pang Jia Tai received the perfect news to start the weekend - that the Singapore Premier League (SPL) was finally back after more than half a year.

The long-awaited news that the SPL, which has been suspended since March 24 owing to the coronavirus pandemic, would return on Saturday (Oct 17) was announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.

Pang, an engineer, said: "My weekends have been too boring, so when the news broke, I was jumping for joy."

For months, the Stags fan of 18 years was refreshing his social media pages in hopes that there would be news of the resumption of the SPL.

Without local football, the 28-year-old, who also supports English giants Arsenal, has been tuning in to the English Premier League and watching Tampines' old games on YouTube.

But fans may have to wait a little longer before they return to the stands as games will be played behind closed doors when the SPL kicks off on Saturday.

Albirex Niigata fan James Perreira Gavin, a facilities maintenance technician, expected this, but was still excited by the return of the league and will be following the live-streamed matches online.

The 42-year-old said: "I'm definitely looking forward to the SPL restart, but it won't be the same because it will be behind closed doors."

However, others like Pang are eager to support their teams in the flesh and are planning to find a vantage point outside the stadiums' premises to cheer their teams on while observing safe distancing measures.

"We miss everything (about the match day experience) from going to the stadium to watching the games to saying hi to the players," said Pang, who is a part of the club's unofficial fan group, Yellow Knights.

Another Tampines fan Lukman Nur Hakim, described the past few months as "alien" to supporters like himself, who turn up for games every week.

The 24-year-old said that after a long layoff, it may also take some time for fans who have not populated the stands for a long time to shake off the rust.

Once the news broke on Friday, fans like Hakim wasted no time, taking to social media to discuss how they would get their chants right before the game.

The engineer, who has supported the club for about 14 years, said: "What I look forward to is the ability to finally meet the faces that we've grown so accustomed to seeing week in, week out for the first time in months.

"I can't put into words how ecstatic we are."

Geylang International fan Nas Marjuki is also planning to support his team in person or catch the broadcast game with other fans, noting that he would abide by the Covid-19 precautionary measures.

For the past few months, the construction safety manager and his fellow Geylang fans from the club's unofficial fan group Ultras Eagles have reminisced about past games by sharing previous games' highlights in their WhatsApp chat group.

"It was really awesome news and we get to see our favourite teams in action again," said the 35-year-old, who has been supporting Geylang for five years.

"It's never happened before - to have a season halted - so it was all up in the air and we just wanted closure."

After a decent start to the SPL with two wins in three games, Nas hopes that the Eagles, who are second in the standings, will be able to qualify for the AFC Cup, which means they will have to finish as the second-ranked local team. The Singapore Cup, which had been the other avenue for qualification, has now been annulled by the FAS so the teams avoid fixture congestion in the truncated season.

He said: "It was looking good, we were looking to be in the groove, but the circuit breaker happened. There's going to be rustiness, but hopefully our coach Noor Ali will get the team back into gear and restart the season just as well."

With Tampines at the top of the table with nine points - three more than Geylang who have a game in hand - Pang hopes that the Stags, who finished second last season, can get a shot at the title this time.

He added: "We would love to challenge for the title but the most important thing is that everyone is safe."