Commentary: Singapore football just doesn’t feel the same – without the crowds or drums
The SingaBrigade’s question over why drums were banned at the AFF Suzuki Championship raises dilemmas over pandemic living and competitive sports, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: You know there’s a different electricity in the air if you’ve ever been to a pre-coronavirus live football match.
There’s the waving of flags and banners, raucous singing and chants, even the rhythmic banging of drums.
There’s a brass band that follows the England national team around the world, though fellow fans don’t always welcome it.
And who can forget the incessant buzzing of the vuvuzela at the South Africa World Cup in 2010, even through our television screens?
So when the Lions kicked off the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup on Sunday (Dec 5) with a 3-0 win against Myanmar, cheers filled the stadium. Or as much as 7,588 safe-distanced spectators could in National Stadium built to hold 55,000 people.
Perhaps an extra level to the atmosphere was missing. The “SingaBrigade” - a fervent group of about 150 Lions’ fans, a red-shirted fixture at the National Stadium whenever Singapore plays - was absent.
The group was peeved they could not bring in two drums due to pandemic measures, in addition to the high ticket cost of S$25 for each adult.
The group wrote on their Facebook page that “drums are considered musical instruments and can transmit the virus. How? We don’t know” and were refused even with the assurance that fans would remain masked as they did for the AFC under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers.
It was also a pity that they weren’t at the Lions’ stunning win over the Philippines on Wednesday.
WHAT’S THE NEW NORMAL FOR FOOTBALL?
Southeast Asia has waited three years for the AFF Suzuki Cup to watch the 10 best teams in the region battle it out.
It was postponed since end-2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when international travel was still largely restricted and the first vaccines were just starting to be rolled out globally.
Despite the excitement and hope that the Lions can lift the trophy for the first time since 2012, it’s no surprise concerns remain about COVID-19 - both the risk of virus transmission among international teams and spectators, and the impact of the precautionary measures in place that might negatively affect the viewing experience and atmosphere.
While the SingaBrigade made it clear they did not blame the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), who said their hands were tied due to local laws, it’s intriguing to look at how sports fan culture around the world is still adapting to the coronavirus threat.
In England, atmospheres are said to be better than ever as fans are delighted to be back watching live football after a year.
There are some exceptions but through the changing mask mandates in the United Kingdom due to the Omicron variant, football stadiums still do not require supporters to mask up.
While there are usually no drums, fans continue to chant and be vocal at every action. A missed chance brings a massive “ohhh”, fans get angry at bad tackles against their own players plus there are magical moments when it feels like fans are almost pushing their team forward with roars of excitement, with the attacking momentum felt inside the stadium leading to a goal that brings great joy.
Now no one is saying that we should tear off our masks in Singapore. Far from it. But did we need to be that prescriptive about the drums? It’s bad enough that food or drinks are not permitted in the stadium for the AFF Suzuki Cup.
And what’s with this odd rule that banners and flags “which do not contravene security or regulatory measures may be allowed, subject to approval at point of entry”? Can people bring flags or not?
To be fair, other countries are stricter with fans. In Japan, singing, shouting and screaming are all banned. Instead, supporters have been told to clap.
The Japan Times newspaper reported in October growing calls for all restrictions to be lifted.
J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai is not quite ready to do that just yet even though he acknowledges that it hurts to have to hold that in” when celebrating a goal, Murai said.
In Japan, fans are known for singing non-stop during but the current situation with masked fans clapping, feels strange and the absence of flags and banners, another Japanese football staple, is another big miss. The New York Times compared it to a symphony concert with applause coming between the movements.
Murai also said that if home treatment for COVID-19 is approved, they may be able to “look at allowing fans to cheer”.
FANS ARE THE 12TH MAN ON THE PITCH
Cue the SingaBrigade’s recent outburst. Fan support makes a big difference.
While the Singapore national team used to play under the Kallang roar in the old days, it has not been easy to create a similar atmosphere in the cavernous 55,000 capacity National Stadium.
To have a group of dedicated, hardcore fans providing an audioscape to cheer on their team can be electrifying. It lifts players and, crucially, for the other supporters, is a bonus to the lived experience of a live soccer game.
A loud home atmosphere helps the team. It’s what creates home ground advantage, at least according to one 2021 study which compared referee decisions in front of big crowds to those made in empty stadiums.
“Referees – viewing the challenges with the crowds' noise – were more uncertain in their decision-making and awarded significantly fewer fouls (15.5 per cent) against the home team, compared with those referees evaluating the same game in silence,” the study said.
The authors state that “the home team is punished less harshly than the away team across all outcomes in games with spectators [while] punished more harshly than the away team across all outcomes in games without spectators.” This is the concept of fans as “the twelfth man” actively helping the team on the pitch to go all out and give their best.
Against an opponent like Myanmar, maybe it does not matter so much but in a tight game against Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia, passion and noise in the stadium may just be enough to tip the balance.
In other words, to give your team the best chance of winning games, get as many fans as possible into stadiums and ask them to be as noisy as possible.
The problem obviously arises when this conflicts with public health advice or rules, which has to take precedence.
SingaBrigade may be right to question the rationale and request for a clearer explanation but most fans will take what they can get.
Perhaps as Singapore moves towards living with endemic COVID-19, and as more rules are lifted because more are vaccinated, that could change. Or authorities could come out to better explain the thinking behind rules.
But for now, like the rest of us, football may still be searching for the right balance.
John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer who covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of four books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).