Neighbourly Rivalry Revisited

Over Twitter I found out that the Football Associations of Singapore and Malaysia have signed an agreement to work together for their mutual benefit after protracted discussions. In short, here is what was agreed upon:

  • Increase competitive matches between the two countries
  • Competition between representatives of the respective leagues
  • Malaysian presence in the S.League, League Cup and Singapore Cup (2012-2015)
  • Singapore presence in the Malaysian Super League, FA Cup and Malaysia Cup (2012-2015)

This move was made in the hope that “fans and players alike” in both nations will be able to witness “exciting and pulsating football in the respective domestic leagues spiced up by the traditional historic rivalry” and both countries will benefit from the increase in international matches.

Having grown up in the tail end of the Malaysia Cup era, most notably the final flourish at the Shah Alam Stadium when we picked up the League and Cup double with the 4-0 thrashing of the Pahang F.A. side, I must say there is nothing quite like the euphoria of a jam-packed National Stadium cheering the Lions on, even if it was “just” against a Malaysian state team instead of the full Malaysian squad. I do miss those days sometimes, and it’s hard not to get nostalgic about 55,000 fans crammed together, overflowing the terraces and crowding onto the stairs when you look at how far we have fallen. Granted, the club sides obviously have smaller stadiums, but attending an S.League match I have never had trouble finding a place to sit and if it’s far enough away from the “fan club” section of about 20-30 singing and drumming supporters, it’s quite possible to play chess while the match is going on. Compare this scene at (back in the) 3rd Division VfL Osnabrück in Germany.

The stadiums may have some people in them, but the loudest noises for me are the sounds of rustling betting slips on 80 minutes and the groans or curses when a 3-0 scoreline becomes 4-0 at the expense of a poor punter’s $500 bet.

But is putting a Singapore U-23 team into the Malaysian competitions, regardless of the “special romance” between Singapore and Malaysia football as FAS President Zainudin Nordin declared, the best way to rekindle the spark and make Singapore football interesting again?

We saw last year at our very own Youth Olympic Games that pitting a national team, no matter the age, against international opposition would serve well to unite the nation. A fact that was not lost on the organisers of this year’s Lion City Cup.

Packed as it may have been, I did note that the de facto national stadium’s capacity (Jalan Besar Stadium) was not comparable to the one we used to have at Kallang, and since the Sports Hub will not be ready till 2014, we will probably be hosting most of these “Causeway derbies” in front of less than 6,000 fans. If we really do manage to pack the stadium consistently for these games – we’ll soon find out because there will be an all-important World Cup Qualifier to be played at Jalan Besar on July 23 – will it suffice to maintain the interest of the typical Singapore fair-weather fan? This will be hard to imagine.

But let’s suppose it does. Thousands of fans fill Jalan Besar for Singapore U-23 vs Perak, the atmosphere is electric and Singapore does excellently. The old magic of Singapore vs Malaysia draws the crowds and keeps the journalists tapping away at their keyboards through the night. What then happens to the S.League?

Yes, the S.League. Singapore’s professional football league, all of 16 years old, with excellent rivalries like Tampines Rovers vs Geylang United (“the Eastern derby”) and Home United vs SAFFC (“the Uniform derby”) waiting to take their places in the Singapore football history books, which has seen attendances dwindle for one reason after another in recent years, will be shunted aside. If the fans can check out the “Lions” in action at a packed Jalan Besar against Selangor FA, why should they buy tickets to Gombak United vs Tanjong Pagar United with 900 spectators?

Will the “Lions”, in their bid to defend national pride, require the services of the likes of Andrew Tan, Delwinder Singh, Shamil Sharif, Zulfadli Zainal Abidin, Yasir Hanapi away from their clubs? This looks likely, as the Courts Young Lions have already taken some young footballers on loan from other S.League clubs in the interest of giving the potential SEA Games squad more match practice together.

What are club officials to do then? If they spend precious funds developing youth players who may wind up being taken away a lá Ruzaini Zainal and Shahdan Sulaiman, should they continue to bother thinking long-term or strengthen their team with foreign imports like Leonardo Costa, Graham Tatters and Kim Dae Eui (who have all been released)? That would miss the point of setting up a professional league to serve as a breeding ground for local talent, which would truly be a step backward for us.

Yet this could be a little bit of a paranoid alarmist view. It is, after all, an exchange – the Harimau Muda A also have to come over and face our clubs – and like the Young Tigers, our young Lions squad will be given a tough mental test in front of unfriendly foreign crowds which should help build character. I enjoyed (and watched) the Young Lions during their Malaysia Cup run in 2006, and I think it will be interesting to repeat that experiment.

And organising competitions between the S.League and M.League or Malaysia Cup and Singapore Cup champions… well, it sounds like an intriguing idea. We’ll get to prove on a regular basis which league is stronger, and there will be bragging rights to be fought for. Something like the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup, only with focus given to the clubs instead of an “S.League Selection”. Let’s give it time to grow instead of jumping the gun with negativity.

The S.League is currently going through a mini-renaissance with exciting football from the likes of Albirex Niigata (S), Etoile FC, Tampines Rovers, Home United and SAFFC, and the renaming of Sengkang Punggol into Hougang United seems to given the Cheetahs a boost into mid-table. More fans are slowly coming back to the stands, and the likes of the Hougang Hools are redefining what it means to be an S.League fan. (So they copy English cheers instead of cheers from other S.League clubs… but at least it’s something new no? 😛 Seriously, their energy and respect is worthy of emulation, if not their language.)

Singapore football may be taking a slightly longer route, but it’s definitely on the way up… let’s see what comes of this plan in its first season next year. Keep track of the buzz surrounding Singapore football and the S.League 🙂

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2 Responses to Neighbourly Rivalry Revisited

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