SINGAPORE: Bobby*, a former professional footballer who spent many years in the S.League, considers himself lucky compared with current players.
While representing many clubs, he pulled in a salary ranging from about S$4,000 to S$9,000 per month at various points of his playing career. While this is a tiny amount compared with footballers’ salaries in Europe or even other parts of Asia, his long career allowed him to plan for a future after he retired.
“As a player, if you’re still playing professionally but have not thought about what you want to do after your playing days are over, then life will be difficult,” said the former Suzuki Cup champion.
However, many professionals are not so fortunate.
"You have players who are working part-time outside playing hours and I can understand that, because they are not earning much," said Bobby.
After spending time on the ground speaking to 10 current S.League players, Channel NewsAsia understands that average squad members earn less than S$3,000 a month, while players who regularly feature in the national team can pull in S$5,000 to S$8,000. There are instances where an elite local player can earn up to S$10,000 a month, but the players who Channel NewsAsia spoke to said such cases are rare.
Passion rather than financial rewards is a key reason why many S.League players continue playing. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
Bobby added that he can understand why clubs are not happy when players seek to top up their wages by taking on another job, but “if you look at it from their point of view, most have a family to feed and are struggling to make ends meet.”
The financial challenges are a key issue for many players, but the players that Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that even more important is the uncertainty about whether they will have a job at all after their contracts expire.
“In the past, the national players would secure their contracts at the latest by August or September,” Bobby explained. This would give players some clarity about their job well ahead of the following season, which usually kicks off by February. This year, the new season kicks off on Sunday (Feb 26) with 2016 champions Albirex Niigata facing Tampines Rovers.
“I know this because I’ve done it myself, although you’re not supposed to sign for any club until your contract expires. But all the other clubs were doing it, where they would have a pre-contract agreement with the player that they’d sign for the club for X amount of money for that year.”
But as match attendance stays low and interest in the S.League remains in the doldrums, clubs are adopting a more conservative approach to signing players.
Balestier Khalsa players training at Toa Payoh Stadium. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
“When you look at things now, even the national players are struggling to secure their contracts because clubs are talking to them late in October or November and even then, clubs will not make up their minds until December,” said Bobby.
Bobby added that it is the uncertainty of securing new contracts which is proving to be a significant barrier for players who want to continue their professional career in the S.League. “It’s not so bad when you’re single. But if you have a family to feed, it is quite scary to know that you won’t have a secure future until only the last week of the year.”
MONEY WOES THE CAUSE OF FALLING STANDARDS?
Salary and contract concerns have a spillover effect onto the playing field, according to current S.League player Carl*, who told Channel NewsAsia that there are some professionals who simply go through the motions on match days.
“Honestly, I can’t find a worse word than to describe (the S.League) as a graveyard for footballers. We are just denying the truth, no matter how hard we try. Everybody knows it and you can’t hide it,” said the player, who is on the books of one of the former S.League champions.
Despite previously being at the upper-end of the wage scale, he is unconvinced that the S.League offers a viable career for aspiring professional players. “I won’t encourage my son to play in the S.League in the future, but I won’t stop him if he chooses to do so.”
While the S.League used to offer five-figure salaries when it started in 1996, those days are long gone, he said. “Now, it’s the neighbouring countries which are the ones paying those amounts of money.”
The net result is that many players in Singapore do not feel motivated to perform at their best: “Players here have come to a conclusion that they’d rather live out their careers as something to enjoy, collect their salaries at the end of the month, and then forget about the game once it’s all over.”
S.League clubs do not own their home ground stadiums. They instead liaise with Sports Singapore for pitch bookings for training and games. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
He added: “There also used to be good bonuses to help motivate players, such as the ones you’ll get playing big games. But now, club bonuses have been cut to as low as just S$100 to S$200, and when you minus CPF and so on, what is left, you tell me? Just peanuts, I say.”
According to Carl, it is the poor rewards combined with the cost of living which make it hard for professional football to thrive in Singapore.
“They used to tell us ‘Just play football for the passion’. I strongly disagree, as the reality is that there is (economic) inflation now and there is always something for you to pay for,” he said.
In comparison, if a Singapore player secures a contract in the Malaysian Super League (MSL), he will be paid much more. “In the MSL, the minimum pay for foreign imports is US$30,000 (S$42,000) per month. But I do know that (richer) clubs like Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) pay some of their players a premium amount of US$100,000 (S$140,000) a month,” said Shahrazad Sani, a sports reporter at Malaysian pay-TV channel Astro Arena.
“Even for top local players in the MSL, they are paid anything from RM30,000 (S$9,500) to RM100,000 (S$31,600).”
CLUBS DOING THE BEST THEY CAN
While players might feel shortchanged, S.League clubs are limited in what they can do to address such concerns.
The amount of money they have available for players’ wages is mostly dependent on the yearly stipend they receive from the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), according to club chairmen Channel NewsAsia spoke to.
Their financial support package comes in the form of the FAS’ distribution of their annual funding derived from yearly grants by the Tote Board, explained Tampines Rovers chairman Krishna Ramachandra.
“You can call it subsidies or their commercial rights, but you have to know that there isn’t any certainty whether it will come through every year,” he said.
It is believed that each S.League club operates on a yearly budget of between S$1.2 million and S$1.5 million, with the Tote Board’s annual subsidy contributing about S$800,000 to that amount.
Uncertainty also surrounds other income streams, with long-term sponsorship deals hard to come by, and that places further constraints on the ability of clubs to plan and build for the future.
“Most sponsorship contracts or revenue streams are on a yearly (deal). If they were on a much longer term basis, then it would be easier to predict cash flow and revenues for that year and so for budgeting purposes it would be easier for us,” said Ramachandra.
S.League club Balestier Khalsa favours youth development over signing marquee players. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
He added that many clubs see jackpot gambling machines as a major source of revenue, although Tampines does not rely on it. “Who’s to say how those revenue streams will go in the next few years, and how those (gambling) licences will be issued in the future?”
As a club that almost went bankrupt ago eight years, Hougang United has now managed to turn its situation around via revenue from jackpot operations. But even so, chairman Bill Ng said that balancing the books remains a major challenge. “The reason why players are on short-term contracts is because of the uncertainty of cash.
“For Hougang, we used to sign most of our players for just six months. I even suggested a three-month contract back then,” said Ng. “We came from a position of near-bankruptcy where we were indebted to the tune of almost S$1.5 million when we started. All the suppliers and vendors were asking us for money before we could even do anything.”
While the situation has improved, Hougang still has to wrestle with the challenges of uncertainty about finances.
FOOTBALL THE BEST PAYING PROFESSIONAL SPORT IN SINGAPORE?
As a veteran sports administrator, Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president Low Teo Ping thinks money should not be the sole reason for sportsmen and women to pursue their chosen game. “I think when you are pursuing sports, money should not be the key element in your motivation,” he said.
“The element of success must be the pursuance of excellence in terms of going beyond what you can achieve. That should be what sports is all about, in that it is about achieving milestones that are beyond what you normally deliver.”
Mr Low believes it is feasible for a young sportsman to earn a living here: “I think there are ways for one to pursue sports as a career in Singapore, but perhaps it is not a matured activity here and more in its infancy. I think one should look beyond just a career, and chase their passion and enjoy what they are doing.”
A number of players at Geylang International are on 2-year contracts compared to many of their S.League peers on 1-year deals. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
Former national goalkeeper Lionel Lewis agrees, and thinks that footballers actually have it good financially. “Compared to other sports in Singapore, I think football is still the number one sport in which you can still earn at least S$2,500 a month while professionally playing the game that you love,” said Lewis, who hung up his boots five years ago.
“If you want to talk about other sports in the country, there isn’t a sport which can get you that same amount. You earn even as you train, and not just for playing on match day. I would say, it’s a good amount to earn on the side.
“In some sports, you don’t even earn match bonuses or even cash rewards for winning a gold medal for your country.”
But current player Carl believes that passion for the game combined with a basic financial reward is not nearly enough.
“Even when we sleep, there’s still something for us to pay for. Yes, (football) is our career choice. But if we’ve been shortchanged … we’d then have to pursue other things to earn a living,” he said.
“We’re in Singapore, my friend, where everything is about money.”
*The former and current players spoke to Channel NewsAsia on condition of anonymity.