Football: Hope for the beleaguered S-League

Tampines players celebrating a goal last season. The Stags will face Albirex Niigata in the Charity Shield match today. The curtain raiser will be played at the new National Stadium for the first time - a boost for the S-League.
Tampines players celebrating a goal last season. The Stags will face Albirex Niigata in the Charity Shield match today. The curtain raiser will be played at the new National Stadium for the first time - a boost for the S-League.TNP FILE PHOTO

As S'pore's pro sports league enters its 22nd year, there is a mix of concern & optimism

It was a sad indictment of the S-League, coming from a footballer who had been there since Day One.

In November, when former Singapore captain Indra Sahdan announced his retirement in The Straits Times, his parting shot was: "My son is 11 now. If he wants to play football, I will tell him to study first. It is too difficult to have a stable career in the S-League now."

As Singapore's only professional sports league kicks off today with the Charity Shield match between Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers, the question is whether the competition, now into its 22nd edition, is still viable.

From the quality of play to job insecurity to a lack of fan interest, the S-League has a lot of sorting out to do amid murmurs that funding could be cut next year or the competition downgraded to semi-professional status.

The concerns are real. At Thursday's announcement that Hyundai would be the league's new co-title sponsor, Komoco Motors group managing director Teo Hock Seng said: "To me, there is no such thing as semi-pro. After you have watched colour TV, you will not want to go back to black and white."

 

This view is echoed by Hougang United general manager Matthew Tay, who said: "We will go down all the way if we turn semi-professional. As it is, it's already hard trying to reach out to sponsors and convincing them that they can get branding and awareness from the S-League."

A DIFFERENT BALL GAME

There is a huge disconnect in terms of how passionate we are about football around the world, like the English Premier League, and our attitudes towards the S-League.

SONG SENG WUN, CIMB economist, on the challenge the S-League faces in its bid to expand its fan base.

For starters, a return to the semi-pro days will mean that Singapore's teams will miss out on Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League and AFC Cup tournaments, which are contested by professional outfits.

These competitions, which award prize money from the knockout rounds onwards, give S-League clubs a chance to mix with the continent's elite. For example, Brazilian stars Oscar and Hulk (Shanghai SIPG) are involved in this season's Champions League.

But the omnipresent English Premier League and Uefa's Champions League, plus the Spanish, German and Italian leagues - all slick and polished products - make it hard for the S-League to challenge for eyeballs and support.

CIMB economist Song Seng Wun noted: "There is a huge disconnect in terms of how passionate we are about football around the world, like the English Premier League, and our attitudes towards the S-League.

"While China is trying to revive its football by importing star players, given the state of affairs here, which institution will cough up good money, especially given the economic landscape?"

One way to bring the crowds back is to improve the core product, which is to dish out better football. But local players cite tough employment conditions as a big reason why they feel unsettled.

S-League clubs are known to hand out one-year, or even 11-month contracts, reportedly to avoid paying the 13th-month bonus.

In 2012, former Lions goalkeeper Lionel Lewis retired at the age of 29 in search of greater job security. Since then, he has been working in Nanyang Polytechnic's student affairs office.

The 34-year-old reasoned: "There are 52 weeks in a year and four weeks in a month. That makes it 13 months in 52 weeks. In a way, the 13th-month pay is not a bonus, it is an entitlement.

"A player needs to feel secure and appreciated and not worry that come December, he has to look for part-time jobs. He has to put food on the table for his family."

Last year, Geylang International sought to ameliorate this by handing out two-year deals to 12 players in their 22-man squad in an attempt to motivate the players.

But a Football Association of Singapore official noted that complacency then set in: "Some of those players felt secure that they were guaranteed a second year and their performances dipped."

Lewis suggested a "1+1 contract" be introduced to combat this.

"If a player does well in his first year, it will activate the second year of his deal with an increment. In that way, he will be motivated to perform," he explained.

Another way is for the clubs to think big. Like how Tampines Rovers made a bold gamble in signing former Arsenal and Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant last season. That led to a buzz surrounding the league which had not been seen in years.

The league itself also has a part to play. Ill-conceived moves such as restricting clubs to no more than five outfield players above the age of 30 (which was introduced in late 2014 and quickly rescinded) do not inspire confidence.

On the other hand, having a compulsory 2.4km running test ensured that players were at least somewhat fit when the season began.

It has also done well in educating players on the pitfalls of match-fixing, with the last case exposed in May 2012. Then, two South Korean football players, Kim Jae Hong and Jeon Byung Euk, attempted to bribe Geylang players when the team played Malaysia's Harimau Muda.

Despite the negativity, the S-League still has its unique selling points.

Assistant Professor Leng Ho Keat from the National Institute of Education's physical education and sport science academic group, said: "The advantage the S-League has over other competitions is that it is possible for their players to create a connection with fans.

"When they are involved within the local community, such as raising funds for local charities, running sports clinics and more, there is an immediate and direct relationship built between spectators and the club."

Economist Song agreed, adding: "There is certainly a market to be tapped. On weekends, you can see many boys and girls playing in organised settings with coaches.

"Success breeds success and more interest; you see the effect of Joseph Schooling on swimming. Maybe we can pray for something like that to happen, some local boy gets picked up (by a big club) and maybe that will inspire a new generation and parents and children will look at it beyond a social activity."

Experts agree that there is hope for the S-League. Some sponsors, like Hyundai and Great Eastern Life, still have faith.

And to start this year with a bang, tonight's Charity Shield will be played at the new National Stadium for the first time.

A lifeline has been thrown. Over to you, S-League.

•Additional reporting by Chua Siang Yee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'Hope for s-beleaguered'. Print Edition | Subscribe