Can Singapore Football Be Saved?

FOR ALL football’s popularity, so much about it has changed for the negative.

It has evolved from an innocent pastime into a devious monster grabbing for that golden cup of plenty.

Many Baby Boomers will appreciate the simple pleasure of kicking a ball around with your friends on your neighbourhood patch. Those days have long since given way to systems and processes.

Want to play? Book a cage, or make your way to a prescribed space. Banish the notion of a pick-up game.

Adding to these “progresses in society” the game has also become increasingly politicised. The recent FIFA corruption scandal shows how the people’s game has become a rich sport that attracts great levels of devious chicanery.

While Singapore’s footballing standard has not risen much, but has sunk, the country’s reputation for match-fixing is becoming the stuff of legends.

Having a delusional politician insist that Singapore would make it to the 2010 World Cup finals provided a few good laughs over drinks. But it also showed just how little is known about the real game at play on the ground.

The recent separation of football and politics is a good thing. The ruling has forced the Football Association Of Singapore to shake up its structure and perhaps kick some sense and joy back into the game.

But, behind all these backroom dramas, we bring today’s discussion to the game at hand.

What does football mean to you? We talk to those happy to share their experiences, and we hope the discussion continues long after, for the good of the game.

Urs Brutsch, 56

I come from a football crazy family, and all my friends played, too, so it was only natural that I would play. I joined my small town’s football club when I was nine and my first transfer was at 15 when I joined FC Schaffhausen.

My life was football and school — probably in that order. At 18, I went to Geneva and joined a big club, which gave me the opportunity to train under top coaches. We later finished runner-up in the Swiss under-19 league.

If I could turn the clock back, I would want to become a professional player. But back then, there was a lot less money in the game, and the ‘proper’ thing was to get a good education — which was the path I chose. Nevertheless, football was always a very important part of my life. I would say that football taught me many lessons, which I could apply in my professional life — teamwork, hard work, discipline, and humility. Even as a coach, football offers lessons that have been relevant to me in business.

Urs Brusch talks about Singapore football
Urs Brusch still enjoys playing football against younger opponents.

Today, at 56, I still enjoy my football with Swiss FC Singapore. Training sessions and competitive games allow me to play with (and against) boys half my age. A great challenge, and something I thoroughly enjoy.

Globally, football has flourished into a massive business. Sadly, it has stagnated in Singapore.

I used to play in the local league when V. Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad were the big stars! Singapore football sorely misses characters like them.

It hurts to see how Singapore football has gone down the drain at all levels — national team, S.League and The National Football League. It needs a total rethink and it needs people who truly have a passion to run the FAS — rather than politicians who do this for “the good of the country”.

If countries like Uruguay or Denmark can produce top class teams, there is no reason why Singapore could not do this!

Dr. Philip Tseng, 58

I was introduced to a football when I was 10 and I have not stopped my affair with it since. I grew up playing with my friends at every opportunity we had — during recess time, before and after school hours, and during physical education classes. I represented my class and school and at 18, for the combined schools team. The team, Catholic Junior College, won the National Schools Soccer competition that year. Later, I played during medical school and also as a doctor at the Alexandra Hospital.

The impact football has on me is immense and the testimony to that is I continue to play the game when nearly everyone who started the game with me has hung their boots up a long time ago. I now play with a team that was started about 15 years ago by former national player Leong Kok Fann for parents from my son’s primary school.

Today, we are no longer just a football team but a social club where many of us have established long term friendships not just among ourselves but within our families too.

The families have become so familiar with one another that it’s not unusual that many of them even holiday together. I have become a medical consultant to many of my football friends. Once, I even had to diagnose a friend who was having a heart attack whilst playing, called an ambulance and promptly sent him to hospital where he had coronary stents put in!

Dr. Philip Tseng with Quah Kim Song.
Dr. Tseng in hoops (standing, 5th from right) with his team — Essex Lasallians — during a friendly at the Penang Sports Club in December 2016. His team mate includes Singapore football legend Quah Kim Song (standing, 7th from right).

Football in Singapore is not bad at all, especially if you are a casual player. There are many opportunities for the man on the street to form teams with friends and play at a social level. There are also many leagues being formed that one can participate in, if you know the right contacts and are inquisitive enough to look for them. I still play up to twice a week but I’m already in my late 50s and have to seriously think about hanging up my boots soon.

However, the state of Singapore’s football is a whole different matter and it would be extremely difficult to emulate the likes of Quah Kim Song and Fandi Ahmad or recapture the glory of the heady Malaysia Cup years. I believe the digital age has made local football far less appealing to the youth of today. Many would rather follow the football teams from England, Spain, Germany or Italy instead of our local football clubs.

I have always believed in the benefits of exercise and playing football achieves the ultimate aim of keeping you healthy. It has shown in many scientific studies to prevent chronic ailments like diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, strokes and even lowering the possibility of cancer. I have no doubt that football has made me a better person by teaching me the life skills of teamwork and having respect for one another. It teaches you to be competitive but yet humble in your abilities and has certainly given me the opportunity to make lifelong friends!

Cheryl Allison Lim, 20

Cheryl Lim @cherzinga plays football. Interest in Singapore football is shrinking. I’ve been to Home United men’s matches and the stadium is quite empty. Singaporeans should support local talent.

People don’t seem to attend because of the quality of play. The game play is very slow and not very interesting.

I think more talent can be brought in if they were paid better. Footballers should be paid as much as office workers.

I would want to be paid to play football.

When I was growing up I was a tomboy and used to play football with the guys. It was impossible to find girls to play football with. I tried volleyball and netball but they didn’t interest me.

I started to play competitively in Cedar Girls Secondary School in a variety of roles — from a defender to winger and even as a striker. In secondary three (2011), we took part in the National Schools B Division tournament, and despite being the underdogs, we overcame the odds and clinched the title.

That was the first time I won a championship.

In 2013 I was accepted into Victoria Junior College via Direct School Admission (DSA) to play football for them, where we went on to win the A Division title three years in a row.

I was recommended to join Home United FC after junior college for a year and took part in a minor tournament, but I left soon after to focus on my fashion design studies at LaSalle College of the Arts.

Nowadays I only play occasionally, but it’s mainly futsal with my guy-friends.

Football taught me perseverance. It made me a lot stronger as a person. You have to push hard at training, so you become physically stronger.

But women’s football can go further if it could receive more funding.

Cheryl Lim plays football for Victoria Junior College.
Cheryl Lim saw success at school level with Cedar Girls and Victoria Junior College.

Albert Francis Louis, 67

I grew up playing soccer when I was a teen in the ’50s and ’60s. Nothing else really mattered then.

I played for the under-15 and senior team for St. Joseph’s Institution and during my school days I won the Football Association Singapore Youth Tournament, FAS third division, Singapore Business Houses Football League, Singapore Government Services Football League, and the Inter Constituency Tournament. I managed all this by 21, and I was even kicking the bass drum so I could make a living!

These were just the local competitions Singapore had, going across the causeway offered even more opportunity — like the Ho Ho Cup, the Sultan’s Gold Cup, the Bhadan Cup.

Almost everyone played the game from all levels and this helped to unearth all the local talent. Today, however, many don’t get the opportunity to play (as much as we did then). And that means talent goes down the drain.

These tournaments brought people out to play the game and many players emerged in the Business Houses and Government leagues. Today, the Chinese community seemed to have stopped playing the game, their focus has since shifted to other sports. It is still a mystery why only the Malay community is taking the game seriously.

Bring back these tournaments. They were immensely enjoyed then, why not again now? To have a good national team we need all the races to play, and no amount of planning and money is going to work.

Just stop the politics for a start — luckily, in the near future, hopefully no politicians will be involved!

Albert Louis playing football with Dollah Kassim.
Louis (front, second from right) with team mates, former national team players Dollah Kassim to his right and Lim Chew Peng (standing, second from left).

Owyong Jian Wei, 29

Owyong Jian Wei of Strangers Soccer

The first time I played the sport, I fell in love with it almost immediately.

It was through football that I made my best friends spanning more than 17 years. It was through football that I learned the ups and lows of life. Sadly, as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to make a game happen due to our various commitments. This deep desire to get closer to my passion motivated me to create Stranger Soccer* — wanting to solve this problem with everybody who faces the same issue as me.

Andrew Gan, 29

Football taught me what real emotions are; from intense elation on the field to uncontrollable sobbing in my youth after watching my favourite club lose an important game. From silly quarrels with loved ones to crazy times with teammates — it is an alternate world that I can be totally immersed in from time to time. As we grow older, these irrational emotions mature and we learn to appreciate the unifying powers of the beautiful game as it turns complete strangers into the best of friends on and off the field. Football has taught me so much that I find it difficult to pinpoint what it means to me, but I will always remember that it was first to show me what real emotions were.

Andrew Gan of Strangers Soccer*Owyong and Gan, run the social platform Stranger Soccer. It helps players find football games to join at various locations in the city at any given time.

Hamidul Haq, 54

I played this game from my youth in different positions and in different teams. It helped build bonds and it allowed me to mix with various strata of society. It was really nice to experience not only Farrer Park and Dempsey Fields under Choo Seng Quee (Singapore’s national coach during the ’60s and ’70s) as a young player in my teens but also to experience the Kallang Roar at the National Stadium as a spectator.

Hamidul Haq lawyer, footballer
Hamidul Haq wants to bring back the Kallang Roar.

The Roar in those days was superb! The chanting was cacophony of different cheers — as we did not have any songs or slogans as we see in the Premier League — but we had the claps, the trumpeting and drums, and, of course, the occasional “referee kayu” to shout in unison. Wish that roar would be just as loud these days.

We lost the Kallang Roar because we had no Malaysia Cup games to allow us to be tribal as Singaporeans against opponents on a regular basis. We have international games but these do not come around as often and rarely invoke the same rivalries of old.

‎To get it back, you need the Malaysia Cup or equivalent — we need to play against the state teams of Malaysia and not clubs to hear the Kallang Roar again!

However on the field when we play, even at this veteran age, the passion remains and without footie there is not much of a life.

Football plays a huge role in my life. The sport brings a community spirit amongst friends and it also requires your mind to be sharp at all times. The sport actually is like a game of chess as it involves using your brain to neutralise attacks and formulate your own.

Football gives you an opportunity to bring about a competitive streak and yet be sporting about it. It is great for keeping fit and it is enjoyable for social reasons.

Nicholas Tey, 21

Nicholas Tey injured footballerI remember watching football for the first time with my grandfather. Like many avid football fans, he would wake up at ungodly hours to watch his favourite teams play.

I didn’t quite understand what the hype was about then, nor did I care to try the sport myself. And how much I regret feeling that way.

I started playing regularly in junior college as part of the school team. Sure, I was committed, but that was too little too late. I was always left playing second fiddle to my peers who had started at a much younger age. The mind was willing but the body was not. I wasn’t terrible, but unfortunately, I was never good enough to break into the first 11. It still hurts to be that guy on the team that couldn’t play with the level of finesse and deftness you’d expect of a footballer.

There is yet no happy ending for my football story. An ankle injury (during National Service) has put me out of action for a year but I hope to come out of this stronger and better!

Unfortunately, in Singapore there will be more and more parents who would frown upon their children spending too much time on a skill that’s unlikely to help them out too much in life. It’s easy to forget life’s simpler joys among the hustle and bustle of modern living. If we hope to improve Singapore’s footballing scene, there will need to be more emphasis placed on starting out young.

Daniel Chan, 36

Daniel Chan on footballFootball marked a turning point in my life. I used to be an introvert in school but that changed dramatically in my polytechnic years when I was exposed to football. It wasn’t really something that I would have picked up on my own, but I thank a classmate, Adrian (who I’m still friends with today!) for introducing me.

As a die-hard football fan, Adrian wanted to form a team badly so that he could play, so I agreed most reluctantly. It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. As a sport that required tremendous teamwork, I had no other choice but to become more open and sociable in order to communicate with my team. Honestly, it wasn’t easy at all initially. But I have to thank my teammates for being most patient with my horrible passing.

After playing casually for a few months, our big break came when the school hosted the inaugural Business Shield Football Tournament. We decided to sign up and trained rigorously. We were playing almost every day after classes. To my surprise, that all paid off when we actually came in third.. That medal still sits proudly in the cabinet at home like a holy grail!

Football really changed who I am. It is a beautiful game indeed.

Does playing/watching local football excite you?

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