Sporting Life

Singapore football has to make an effort to change its culture

Effort is our basic request. Endeavour is our simple demand. The athlete can't assure us of victory, or guarantee high skill, but he can chase a football till he cramps. Can throw flurries of punches late in the 12th round. Can sweat, try, vomit. Can make it worth our ticket price.

Effort is why I admire Rafael Nadal because it's part of the contract he signs with every fan. Written in the invisible ink of sweat. Commitment isn't just his signature, it's his weapon, because his fitness unnerves people. When's this *&^% going to slow down? Never.

Effort is a choice, it's a habit, it's within your control. Run or stop? Ten reps or 20? This year I watched a selection of Singapore athletes at practice and it was like visiting a factory floor of hopeful greatness. One trained alone under a fierce sun, one arrived before daylight, one worked for four straight hours.

Effort is what Singapore football should embrace. Mad, crazy, constant effort. The game's bosses should print out the word and paste it on every door of every football office, gym, club, dressing room. Make it the game's philosophy, its inviolable pact.

Players should invite fans to their practice sessions and scare them with their intensity. They should shake up their rivals with the depth of their labour. When a teenage Michael Phelps told his peers he trained every day, his coach Bob Bowman wrote that they turned yellow.

Teams change cultures, we've seen it happen. Athletes alter attitudes, we know this for a fact. Spinach replaces curry and sports drinks swop places with fizzy ones. Indian cricketers once moved like over-fed stately princes but now are sleek athletes because their captain Virat Kohli, who carries around his own nut butters on tour, won't settle for anything else.

Leadership sets the tone, it helps embed a culture. Take a trip to Kohli's Twitter feed and you'll find him posing in front of gym mirrors, asking, "How many one-handed push-ups can you do?" and insisting that "Rest day is a cheat day". Every tweet sounds like a message.

It's not new rules we need to write, or a new team we need to make, but a new culture we have to forge. A new hard-running, no-complacency, no-smoking, no-excuses attitude, which doesn't point out what fitness tests other teams don't do but that we do stuff they can't do.

Effort is about gumption, not genes, it is a statement about getting better, it is former tennis star Thomas Muster building a bench to sit on and hit shots when his leg broke. Effort isn't a secret, it's advertised constantly, like on Bill Simmons' show last year on The Ringer, where he recounted a chat with a friend of LeBron James who revealed that "people don't realise how hard he works on his body".

The basketballer replicates the gym of the team he's playing for at home, has masseurs, two trainers and chefs. It's expensive but there's also an irrefutable logic to it: The healthier you are, the fitter you become, the better you play, the longer you last.

Effort gives you confidence because you know you've done the hard work and this truth is your armour. Effort is reassurance, for you know you're not as gifted as the next guy but you'll compensate for it with endurance. He can dribble past you, you will hound him.

Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland's football manager, knows his team may not have a Reykjavik-born Maradona, and so, as he told The Telegraph, "hard work has to be a value in everything we do. When we compliment kids we say, 'duglegur!'. It means 'hard work!'. Well done, because you put effort into it."

Effort is how you respect a game because what's the point of saying, "I love football madly" if you don't work madly for football? There is no magic tonic to make our footballers grow taller, but 100 extra sit-ups is their choice. It's painful but maybe you just do it because you're proud and desperate and tired of constantly letting in goals as a game winds down.

And so it's not new rules we need to write, or a new team we need to make, but a new culture we have to forge. A new hard-running, no-complacency, no-smoking, no-excuses attitude, which doesn't point out what fitness tests other teams don't do but that we do stuff they can't do.

A new appreciation that it's not about how many birthdays you've had but how much body fat you have. A new understanding that the footballer, as the tennis star Big Bill Tilden once said, "owes the gallery as much as the actor owes the audience". He needs to put on a sweaty, committed show. Else why will the fan make an effort?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore football has to make an effort to change its culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe