Fully privatised club Lion City Sailors' entry into Singapore's football scene could be the spark to lift the local game from the doldrums, members of the fraternity told The Straits Times yesterday.
The Sailors, helmed by billionaire Forrest Li, announced on Thursday that they would replace two-time champions Home United in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). Li is the founder, chairman and chief executive of Sea, a home-grown Internet company valued at more than US$21 billion (S$29.2 billion) which owns the club.
National Under-15 coach Philippe Aw, who played for Home from 1999 to 2002 and spent nine years as their youth and then first-team coach, lauded the move. The 42-year-old said: "For the longest time, every club simply depended on handouts. If they receive less subsidies, they just make do with that amount.
"But now we have a club that are privately owned and funded well enough to say they won't take the subsidies, they have the budget to have 10 coaches for the first team if they want to, or build a solid academy set-up behind the first team."
Another former Home player R. Sasikumar, founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global, said sporting success will determine whether the project is viable in the long term as "people always want to be associated with winners".
The ex-Home player from 1999 to 2001 added: "They have their work cut out for the next decade, but if they put the work and foundation in place, and with the financial might they have, there's no reason they cannot achieve it."
Solid back-end operations are also vital. James Walton, the sports business group leader at Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia, added: "Having a club that hopefully sets out best-practice models and shows other teams how to commercialise, helps lift the status of the game.
"You hope that it also becomes an example... because there are people out there with money."
But the landmark move has also raised concerns. Tang Weng Fei, who was chairman of Woodlands Wellington from 2002 to 2004, called privatisation of local clubs "the way forward". But the oil trader warned that there should not be "too much politics or red-tape issues" as it could dissuade others from following suit.
Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Lim Kia Tong, however, said there will be a motion to amend the association's constitution to allow privatised clubs to be FAS members at its next congress.
This would give the FAS "better control over the club", he added.
They have their work cut out for the next decade, but if they put the work and foundation in place, and with the financial might they have, there's no reason they cannot achieve it.
R. SASIKUMAR, former Home and Singapore player, giving a positive prognosis for the new experiment.
Tampines Rovers chairman Desmond Ong said the competitiveness and integrity of the SPL could suffer as the Sailors have far more financial might than the other clubs, allowing a club to "cherry-pick the best players from the rest of us without compensation to the clubs".
He added: "If after a while, there is still only one privatised club that dominates the market and competition, how can that be good for Singapore football?"
But Aw disagreed, adding: "We should not have the mentality that if nine of 10 runners are slow, we make the fast guy run slower. We should let him run as fast as he can, and the other nine should try their hardest to catch up."
Sasi said: "If Forrest can run it as he does his business, make it truly commercially viable... (Sailors) can have a knock-on effect for the rest of the league and lift Singapore football."