High on the new Football Association of Singapore (FAS) council's agenda is to revive the ailing professional scene. Wang Meng Meng meets FAS vice-presidents Teo Hock Seng and S. Thavaneson, the two veteran football officials leading the council's charge to revitalise the S-League, as they draw up plans to make the league sustainable and successful. From introducing promotion and relegation, to instilling financial prudence among clubs, no stone is left unturned in a bid to rejuvenate the league.
Relegation and promotion between the top-tiered S-League and second-tiered National Football League (NFL) is likely to be introduced to "avoid complacency".
The threat of the drop - and the possible financial hit that would accompany it - would push S-League clubs to raise their game. At the same time, players would take their livelihoods more seriously.
Meanwhile, the thought of promotion could possibly incentivise well-organised NFL clubs to dream and act big. Said Mr Thavaneson: "There seems to be a new sense of hope among NFL clubs. In terms of performance and approach, they are taking it much more seriously now. Some clubs even hold press conferences to announce the signing of new sponsors. They definitely have upped their game."
However, S-League clubs typically operate on annual budgets of at least $1.2 million, while some NFL clubs cannot even muster more than $10,000 in their accounts. This has led to concerns that stepping up to the professional ranks could be a bridge too far for grassroots clubs.
Mr Thavaneson counter-proposed: "If promotion is too tough, perhaps (the NFL clubs) could merge with a sit-out S-League club. Some of the clubs had to sit out previously because they had incurred huge debts, but most of them are over those problems now."
DISCOVERING A NEW VERVE
We must open up to get views... from the public, esteemed professionals. When the S-League first started in 1996, officials like the two of us were passionate, even fiery, as we argued for the development of local football. We want to roll back the years and rediscover the ability to push things forward.
We have the experience to know the pitfalls but we want to breathe a new culture into the S-League. We hope to trigger fresh thinking, but any changes to the rules and regulations we make must be fair to the development of Singapore football.
Both officials agree that the new S-League must have at least 12 clubs, with the ratio of local teams to foreign clubs at either 9:3 or 10:2.
There are two foreign clubs playing this S-League season - Japan's Albirex Niigata and Brunei DPMM.
To spice up the competition and hopefully draw corporate interest, the ad hoc committee is mooting re-allocating the local clubs to some of the 16 group representation constituencies on the electoral map.
Said Mr Thavaneson: "A big company like Singtel, for example, can do their CSR (corporate social responsibility) work alongside other GLCs (government-linked companies) with the S-League clubs.
"There is a lot of space around the stadiums and the corporations can do their outreach activities there."
Come August, the FAS council will meet officials from national sports agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) to find out how much funding it will receive for the 2018 S-League season.
In March, SportSG announced that it had become the gatekeeper of the subsidies the FAS receives annually from the Tote Board, which is reportedly worth $25 million. This is in line with the agency's practice of disbursing funds to national sports associations.
There have been many instances of financial struggle among S-League clubs. The most recent example is that of Tampines Rovers, which ran into cash-flow problems last year. The club had been overambitious in building a strong squad, signing former Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant on a monthly salary of $20,000, when local players typically earn between $2,000 and $4,000.
Both Mr Teo and Mr Thavaneson emphasised that, with the quantum of funding from SportSG still uncertain, clubs should cut their coat according to their cloth.
Mr Thavaneson said: "We are impressing upon the clubs not to overspend. If they can break even this year, it will be easier to re-organise and do a proper rescue job. All clubs should work strictly within their budgets. They cannot sustain the clubs out of their own pockets."
Clubs typically spend between $1 million and $1.2 million a year, with $800,000 from the FAS subsidies and the rest raised through sponsorships and jackpot operations.
The committee hopes to find ways to commercialise the S-League, in a bid to wean it off its dependence on jackpot rooms as its main revenue stream. "Right from the start, we want to eliminate this thinking that the FAS will always come to the rescue and hope that the jackpots will roll in the money," Mr Teo said.
Mr Teo and Mr Thavaneson, both of whom are in the FAS council's executive committee, will spearhead an ad hoc committee to look into revamping the S-League into a more viable and exciting competition.
Council member Forrest Li, the chief executive of online gaming platform Garena, is also on board.
The two veteran officials are keen to canvass opinions and ideas to reshape the country's only professional sports competition.
Mr Teo said: "We must open up to get views... from the public, esteemed professionals.
"When the S-League first started in 1996, officials like the two of us were passionate, even fiery, as we argued for the development of local football. We want to roll back the years and rediscover the ability to push things forward."
The former Tampines Rovers chairman added that the committee had sought input from two industry experts, MP & Silva and Red Card Global, for views on how to refresh the S-League scene. On Thursday, it was announced that the Asian Football Confederation, the continent's ruling body, will also provide experts to study the S-League and recommend suitable changes.
Mr Thavaneson said: "We have the experience to know the pitfalls but we want to breathe a new culture into the S-League. We hope to trigger fresh thinking, but any changes to the rules and regulations we make must be fair to the development of Singapore football."
KEEPING NS GUYS ACTIVE
S-League clubs need to cope with players leaving upon enlistment for national service. A lingering concern is that, while they are serving the nation, these footballers' skills would fade.
But Mr Teo and Mr Thavaneson have a solution - give Safsa and Police, which represent the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team services respectively in the NFL, enlarged squads. "We can adjust the rules to allow the two national service teams to have squads of 40," Mr Thavaneson suggested. "Having a large squad allows the coaches to continue fielding a good team while not losing any players to NS."
Mr Teo added: "We could even allow the Civil Defence to have an NFL team, too. With three NS teams having squads of 40, you are keeping 120 players in the football system."
SPORTSG MEETING VITAL
Much will depend on the August meeting with SportSG, whereby the ad hoc committee will know the level of funding they will be receiving next year.
From then on, many or all of these ideas will be set in motion, and the revamp of the S-League will begin in earnest.