Commentary: Can football deliver Singapore its sporting pride?
The recently announced dream of Singapore qualifying for the 2034 World Cup is welcomed but John Duerden questions if it is both necessary and realistic.
SINGAPORE: On Mar 8, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong revealed the latest plan to take the country into the upper echelons of international football.
Is it necessary to have Singapore performing at the highest level of world football? Or are we just content with the strong grassroots football scene in the country and limit our supporting passion to our favourite European clubs and World Cup teams?
Speaking of the plans in Parliament, the Minister said that football’s mass appeal and high participation means that it helps bring Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds together.
READ: The Big Read: Goal 2034 – hard-hitting questions answered on Singapore’s ‘big, hairy, audacious aspiration’
“A national team that can perform at the highest levels affirms Singapore’s multiple pathways of success, and is a source of national pride.”
But, is it a realistic target? If it isn’t, would it be a better use of time and resources to look to other sports that have a better chance of becoming a source of national pride? Why not swimming since it has already put Singapore on the world map through Joseph Schooling’s Olympic winning race?
WHY IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME
The World Cup is the ultimate goal and Minister Tong has said that the 2034 tournament is a realistic objective for the Lions.
There seems to be more of a plan and structure this time compared to past projects such as Goal 2010 - implemented in 1998 with the aim of getting the national team to the 2010 World Cup, which did not materialise.
Things are different now, compared to 1998. The plan, as announced by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, was to emulate the successful World Cup-winning French national team built on talented immigrants.
That strategy unfortunately didn’t deliver.
From 2001 to 2008, there were 12 naturalised citizens brought in to play for Singapore but they were either too old – like Aleksandar Duric who only made his Singapore debut at 37 – or others, like Brazilian Egmar Goncalves and Croatian Mirko Grabovac, who were hugely successful in the S-League but who were far from the world-class talents needed.
Instead, Singapore has since embarked on a more organic approach.
The first step was to overhaul the physical infrastructure and the ecosystem. New state-of-the-art stadiums, such as the Our Tampines Hub Stadium, were built.
The S-League made way for a more professional and better-managed Singapore Premier League (SPL) in 2018, which had higher remuneration for players and sponsorship deals.
Singapore internationals playing in the SPL can now earn between S$5,000 to S$10,000 monthly, attracting more locals as professional footballers.
The local game also now sees more business leaders and corporations bring in their commercial acumen and private money, such as Sea Group and its founder Forrest Li, and insurance giant AIA, which is the title sponsor of the SPL.
Foreign teams like Albirex Niigata also send their satellite teams to increase the competition in local football.
Equally important is that the approach to talent development has changed. To support Goal 2010, a National Football Academy was set-up in 2000.
While this step was seemingly in the right direction, it meant that the focus of creating world-class players was concentrated solely on this group of players who also almost exclusively formed the nucleus of national age-group teams.
It shrunk the pool of talent for Singapore, which already has a small talent base to begin with.
With the 2034 aim now, there is a wider approach as the project aims to implement a national curriculum that schools, academies and private football clubs will have access to.
READ: Commentary: Could Sea Group’s Forrest Li be the next Singaporean owner of a global football club?
There will be an increase in the quantity and quality of coaches to teach this curriculum as well as a new elite youth league that will give the best prospects more chances to play against talented opposition.
We also see more Singaporeans competing overseas now. By 1998, only a handful of Singaporean footballers – most notably Fandi Ahmad and V Sundramoorthy – had made a mark overseas.
Now that figure has swelled to double-digits as Singaporeans ply their trade in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Thailand and even Europe – crucial exposure for local footballers.
IS IT REALISTIC?
With a more professional ecosystem and a wider talent base, there are better chances for Singapore now than in 2010.
Moreover, the 2034 World Cup will offer 48 spots compared to 32, which will give Asia eight automatic places in the tournament compared to four.
Yet, few will expect Singapore - currently ranked 33rd in Asia and 158th in the world – to leapfrog continental powerhouses such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or even second-tier teams like China and North Korea, to take their places.
Realistically, the Asian Cup should be a prior target before any talk of a World Cup. Singapore has not appeared at the continental tournament, now featuring 24 teams, since 1984. Qualification for the 2023, 2027 or 2031 Asian Cups should be priority.
Installing a national curriculum, improving the standard of coaching and encouraging more youth participation is a worthy goal in its own right. Yet if Singapore wants sport to become a source of national pride then football is not its best bet.
The problem is that a team sport like football doesn’t just need one Schooling in swimming, a Benedict Tan in sailing, a Ronald Susilo in badminton or a Li Jiawei in table-tennis. It needs a whole team of good talented players.
Producing one or two top-class players is not enough for the football World Cup. Realistically, you are looking at developing most of your first 11 players who are capable of competing at the global level.
It is a tall order that can be extremely tough and expensive, with significant investment needed from both the public and the private sector. Even then, there is no guarantee of success.
Take China, which is a country of over 200 times the population of Singapore. It has already poured billions of dollars into improving its national football team and domestic football league.
Yet, the country has appeared at the World Cup just once and didn’t score a single goal.
On the contrary, China has won hundreds of gold medals at the Olympics in non-team sports such as shooting, diving and gymnastics.
South Korea, the most successful Asian nation at the World Cup, has performed better in other non-team sports it concentrates on such as archery, judo and taekwondo.
THE NS QUESTION
Focusing on such sports involving one or two people is easier than finding 11 to succeed as, in such events, there is a greater correlation between investment, training, determination and success.
As is seen, Singapore’s medals at past Olympics have come in swimming and table-tennis. The women’s table-tennis team won silver at the 2008 Olympics and bronze four years later when Feng Tianwei also won an individual bronze. These are platforms on which to build.
Even if Singapore gets its investment, infrastructure and player development right, there is another factor that could derail things.
Let’s not forget that from 16 to 18 years of age – a critical development period in a footballer’s career – Singaporean men will instead be in their uniforms running up the hills of Pulau Tekong as part of their mandatory two-year National Service (NS).
READ: Commentary: Great that Tampines Rovers is playing with the best in Asia. But what will that do for local football?
Admittedly, Singapore isn’t the only country with a mandatory conscription service. Others, like Egypt, Greece, South Korea and Turkey, also do but still do well in football.
If Singapore is going to be serious about its Goal 2034, then it needs to review how promising footballers can balance the nation’s footballing dreams with their NS obligations as the social equity questions that may be raised.
It is worth noting that Singapore’s only Olympian gold-medallist, Schooling, and his Team Singapore colleagues, received NS deferment in their bid to make sporting history.
Perhaps when it has a team good enough to compete at the world stage that exemptions for them can be considered.
In the meantime, there is plenty of scope for national pride in other fields than football.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).