SINGAPORE: On Wednesday (Dec 2), Tampines Rovers secured qualification for the group stage of the 2021 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League - the first team from Singapore to do so since 2010.
Much has changed in Asia’s premier club competition since the Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC), now known as Warriors Football Club, was knocked out after finishing third in its group.
The tournament has grown in a number of ways. It will feature 40 teams next year, an increase of eight from 2020.
Standards have also risen since 2010. Chinese clubs have invested considerable amounts in world famous players and coaches with the likes of Shanghai SIPG lining up former Brazilian internationals Hulk and Oscar, whose combined transfer fees cost a reported US$150 million in 2016.
Spaniard and 2010 World Cup winner Andres Iniesta, who won four UEFA Champions Leagues, is now with Japan’s Vissel Kobe. His former Barcelona team-mate Xavi Hernandez is now coach of Al Sadd in Qatar, which has players such as Santi Cazorla, formerly of Arsenal.
In 2019, there were only two teams from Southeast Asia in the group stages of the competition but in 2021 there will be six, due to the expansion of the tournament.
Besides Tampines Rovers of Singapore, these will be Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim, Viettel of Vietnam and United City of the Philippines and they will be joined by two teams, yet to be decided, from Thailand.
BENEFITS TRICKLING DOWN
While it may be exciting for players from Singapore and elsewhere in the region to be on the same pitch as some of the superstars they had previously seen on television playing in the big leagues of Europe, the football mad region of Southeast Asia with over 600 million people should get more out of the experience.
After the Champions League ends, the six teams will return to their domestic leagues and will have little or no interaction with each other.
While four teams from South Korea’s 12-team K-League have Champions League experience every year, only one of eight from Singapore’s Premier League will - a figure that falls to one from 14 in Vietnam.
It is unlikely that these teams alone will be able to translate their experience of competing in the Champions League to lifting the standards of their respective domestic leagues.
For example, even if Tampines Rovers’ participation in the competition sees its quality increase from playing against top Asian clubs and world-class players, will other clubs in the Singapore Premier League benefit from this?
After all, back in the domestic league, each club will only compete against Tampines Rovers twice in a season.
To truly benefit other clubs, they need to be playing against better, regional-standard teams, regularly.
That can happen if more clubs from Singapore qualify for the Champions League every year but more spaces will be allocated to Singapore clubs only if teams from the country consistently do well in the tournament. It is the proverbial chicken and egg story – which should come first?
A REGIONAL COMPETITION
A competition to bridge the gap between the domestic leagues within Southeast Asia and the Champions League could enable the benefits from the continental competition to be spread more evenly around the region.
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If say the top three teams in each of the 10 Southeast Asian countries qualify for another regional tournament, then more clubs in each league will get to play against top teams from the other countries that have also participated in the Champions League.
So if the second and third placed Singapore Premier League club, for instance, can play in a competition that not only includes Tampines Rovers but also Johor Darul Ta’zim, Viettel and United City of the Philippines then they will be more exposed to clubs that play against the region’s best.
That experience will hopefully trickle down to ensuring these clubs to raise their standards and, consequently, that of their own leagues.
A rise in standards would also help, over time, as clubs prepare for the tougher challenges of facing teams from China, Japan and South Korea.
BRINGING BACK THE KALLANG ROAR
There are more benefits to having a regional competition. One need only look at the excitement generated from 2012 to 2015 when Lions XII of Singapore participated in the Malaysia Super League and Harimau Muda of Malaysia in the S-League to see how national pride can provide excitement and interest.
The Lions average attendance of around 4,000 in 2015 was considerably higher than the S-League’s average of 1,302.
In addition, the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup, when the national teams from the region meet, is an exciting and popular event with the most recent edition in 2018 attracting more than 750,000 fans to the 26 games, an average of around 29,000 per match.
A regional competition could thus increase interest, support and participation of domestic football in the country and rekindle the famous Kallang Roar spirit that we saw from the 1970s to 1990s when Singapore competed in the Malaysia Cup.
ASEAN SUPER LEAGUE
The idea of a Southeast Asian-wide league is however not new. An ASEAN Super League (ASL), an annual competition featuring the best teams from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere has been proposed before.
In 2015, Zainudin Nordin, then president of the Football Association of Singapore, was behind a move that he argued would create more opportunities for players in the country.
“If the top local footballers are playing in the ASL, it will allow more talent to step up and be exposed in the S-League, which creates an ecosystem in which we can develop more players. The vision is for the project to be a game-changer and enabler to bring up the quality and professionalism of football in this region.”
While there was plenty of talk, and some interest, a lack of concrete details meant that clubs and federations around the region never really knew what the proposals actually entailed.
“We were open to the idea for the project team to sell it to us,” Ben Tan, Deputy General Secretary of the Football Association of Thailand, said.
“But we were not convinced as there was not enough information. There was no concrete plan.”
CHALLENGES AND CONSIDERATIONS
Any plan will have to deal with a number of issues.
The first is how it would be organised. If the best teams are taken from each country, do they perform exclusively in the super league, which weakens the national leagues in the short-term at least, or do they participate in both?
And if it is the latter, how can teams organise their squads to compete on another front and play an extra 18 games or so a year?
The most practical issue is time. With domestic leagues, continental competitions and national team commitments, it can be tough to find time to simply play the games.
“Any calendar needs to be planned very carefully,” said Mr Tan. “It is really difficult. Even if you fix it in theory, the practice is different.”
In November 2019, the AFC, which oversees all football on the continent, said that it had received a proposal to create a new league from the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) but added that there was still work to be done.
“While the AFC welcomes all efforts by the AFF to support the development of club football in the region, there are processes that need to be followed, especially in ensuring all outstanding issues are clarified before the approval,” the AFC said in a statement.
The onset of the coronavirus meant that the focus in Asia was on trying desperately to complete existing tournaments rather than establish new ones.
However, with football leagues across the region suspended due to COVID-19 – the Singapore Premier League has been paused since Mar 24 - the economic costs of coronavirus to local football clubs, staff and agencies would be substantial.
They would need new revenue streams and sources to remain sustainable and overcome this setback.
Against this backdrop, a new and expanded intra-regional league could be useful.
In today’s sport, an expansion and escalation of interest in the game will inevitably bring in more money to the local sport too in terms of advertising and broadcasting revenue, which will help grow the sport in the region.
If Southeast Asia is to grow in footballing power, then the region must come together.
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).