SPL football still up in the air

Fixtures for new, delayed season yet to be revealed as pandemic poses various issues

Khairul Nizam (centre) training with Geylang teammates at Our Tampines Hub last November. The forward has since joined SPL rivals Hougang but is still waiting to make his Cheetahs debut owing to the pandemic.
Khairul Nizam (centre) training with Geylang teammates at Our Tampines Hub last November. The forward has since joined SPL rivals Hougang but is still waiting to make his Cheetahs debut owing to the pandemic.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Players from the Singapore Premier League's (SPL) eight clubs have been hard at work on the pitch since early last month, getting in tip-top shape for the start of the 2021 season.

While last Saturday was initially mooted as the date for its traditional curtain-raiser, the Community Shield, that has since passed with the clubs still uncertain about when this year's campaign will kick off.

The last two editions of the Shield, which usually takes place a week before the season gets under way, were held on Feb 23 and Feb 22 in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

The Straits Times understands that the possible reasons for the delay are the uncertainty surrounding the participation of Brunei DPMM - the two-time champions sat out last term owing to Covid-19 travel restrictions - and quarantine considerations for title holders Albirex Niigata's players and clubs' new foreign signings.

Responding to queries from ST, a Football Association of Singapore (FAS) spokesman said it will be announcing the details for the 2021 SPL season, including the schedules of the mandatory fortnightly swab tests for the players, "in due time".

The spokesman added: "Concurrently, we are also finalising arrangements with Brunei DPMM FC with regard to their participation in the upcoming SPL season.

"Given the fluid nature of the 2021 football calendar as well as taking the various continental competitions involving our clubs and national teams in a schedule-heavy year, the FAS is working closely with the authorities and stakeholders to ensure the domestic season can kick off in a safe and timely manner."

SPL coaches and players whom ST spoke to said the uncertainty would affect their plans but they were understanding of the reasons for the delay in the release of fixtures.

Tampines Rovers head coach Gavin Lee said: "It definitely isn't easy to prepare a team for a season when there is no start date. We haven't been able to set an end point to our pre-season.

"But we do understand that there are several moving parts this year. We know that FAS is working on it and all we can do is to train hard and get the players ready for when the season eventually starts."

Geylang coach Noor Ali added: "Of course it's hard to plan ahead but this is a situation similar to last season when there was a long wait during the Covid-19 period for the season to resume. We adapted then (with training over Zoom) so we just have to do the same now and wait for the news.

"It's better to clear any uncertainty now than to release the fixtures and then for it to be revised again because of any team dropping out. We would love to have the dates but we understand the situation at hand."

Balestier Khalsa skipper and Lions goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam said players had heard talk of the league starting this month but were not aware of any new revised dates.

Said the 33-year-old: "As of now, players don't know if it is going to be two-rounds of fixtures like last season or three rounds as usual. We would prefer to know the fixtures earlier of course, because it helps us prepare better.

"But the decision is not in our hands. We can only keep training hard and wait."

A club official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that clubs were also informed that swab tests would be carried out in the first two weeks of this month, but those have not materialised.

Last season, all 223 players and match officials underwent Covid-19 swab tests before the campaign resumed in October after a hiatus of nearly seven months.

"Some of the clubs wanted to arrange friendly matches between SPL clubs but because we have not done any swab tests, we haven't been able to do that," said the official. "There has been zero competitive action for the players since the previous season ended. That is not ideal at all."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2021, with the headline 'SPL football still up in the air'. Subscribe