Things the S.League could learn from the J.League
Japan's football revolution could provide S.League with some answers
Japan: It is unthinkable now, but fan attendance in the late 1970s fell to an alarming low of fewer than 2,000 per match.
The professional J.League started with 10 teams in 1993 as part of the 100-year vision that states by 2093 there will be 100 football clubs in Japan.
Wataru Endo, who works in the J.League sales management and marketing division, told TNP recently that the aim is to have each club loved and supported by local fans, local businesses, local government and the city or town they are in, while the clubs provide them with an environment for a healthy sports culture.
Singapore: Following Singapore's exit from the M.League in 1994, local football officials took two years to create the S.League in 1996.
It was the Republic's first professional football league, kicking off with eight teams, mostly from the semi-professional Singapore Premier League that was founded in 1988.
Japan: J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai explained that there are currently 53 clubs in 36 prefectures.
"Eventually, we hope to add clubs from every prefecture. J1 has 18 teams, J2 has 22 and J3 has 13, so any new clubs will initially join J3.
"For a new club, the conditions are different for each division. For J1, clubs must have a stadium with a minimum capacity of 15,000; for J2, it is 10,000. In addition, the club must be financially stable and have corporate status."
Singapore: Two decades on, the Football Association of Singapore and the S.League have consistently maintained that the local football climate is not ready for a professional league with more than one division and the promotion/relegation system.
Japan: With big-money investment, the young J.League attracted stellar names such as Zico and Gary Lineker, and this helped fuel interest and popularity in the newly revamped league, and the sport as a whole.
At the moment, there are no truly world-famous names after Diego Forlan recently left Cerezo Osaka, but the quality of the J.League is so high they no longer have to go for top names to draw the crowds.
Singapore: Most local fans will remember World Cup stars like Iranian duo Hamid Reza Estili and Mohd Khakpour who played for Geylang, and Finland's Kimmo Tarkkio, who turned out for Tiong Bahru (1989-90) and Geylang United (1997).
SAFFC, not the Warriors, also had magical Croats like Velimir Crjlen, Ivaca Raguz and later Mirko Grabovac. But as the money dried up, S.League clubs were unable to attract big names, or maintain the standard of the first few years.
Japan: Speaking of the fledgling J.League in the mid-90s, Endo said: "In the first two seasons, support was very good. But by the third year, people got bored.
"Some teams, or their sponsors, ran into financial problems and some clubs like Yokohama Flugels closed down."
Singapore: Similar issues plagued the S.League, with flagging interest and attendances decreasing from a high of tens of thousands to a low of a few hundred.
Some clubs, like Sembawang Rangers, could not last the distance due to financial instability.
National team success
Japan: Endo feels that some luck was involved, as the Blue Samurai managed some success on the international scene, and the J.League was able to capitalise on that.
He said: "I believe if we didn't qualify for the 1998 World Cup, maybe the J.League could have disappeared. But with Japan qualifying for the World Cup, the audience returned.
"And of course, we co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with South Korea, which created a new wave of interest for Japanese football and the J.League."
Singapore: The Lions won the 1998 Tiger Cup, and subsequent Asean titles in 2005, 2007, and 2012, with players largely from the S.League.
While fans filled the stadiums for those semi-finals and finals, this did not translate to a corresponding increase in attendance at S.League matches.
Japan: It is a sight to behold on matchdays - almost 20,000 fans, some queuing up for almost an hour to get into the Alwin, home of newly promoted J.League Division 1 debutants Matsumoto Yamaga, who are battling to avoid relegation.
Yamaga vice-president Yoshiyuki Kato told TNP: "We work hard to maintain a strong relationship with localities where the teams are based, and a strong culture where people enjoy going out on a Saturday to watch sports.
"We organise events and create opportunities for local fans to interact with the players."
Endo added: "Japanese football clubs had to face the reality and work with the local community. During the 1997/98 period, they began to realise the importance of this aspect.
"By this time, clubs understood that if they have the support of their local communities, they are able to survive even if they don't have the richest financial backers."
Singapore: S.League clubs are required to organise some form of community outreach, and most go to schools to conduct clinics. Some, like Hougang United, have also initiated scholarship programmes. But critics have said the programmes are minimal and lack any sort of imagination.
Japan: While Matsumoto Yamaga have just a handful of full-time administration staff, they have up to 200 volunteers on matchdays to handle crowd control, sales of tickets, food etc.
Local shops and eateries also voluntarily display the club's logo and the team's fixture list.
Kato said this is a result of the club's active community outreach programme, and pointed out this is not uncommon in other parts of Japan, where banks and pharmaceutical companies also sponsor football teams.
He added: "Rich owners with big money may be able to bring in quick success, but at Matsumoto Yamaga, we prefer to build a strong relationship with a local company like with Seiko Epson Corporation, develop strong rapport with supporters in the Nagano area, and grow with the people here."
Singapore: Due to budget constraints, S.League clubs generally also do not hire many full-time staff.
While some volunteers can be seen on matchdays helping out with the sale of food, and tertiary student-cheerleaders feature once in a while, the voluntary culture just does not seem as strong in Singapore.
Shops in Toa Payoh, Hougang or Bedok mostly do not feel nor exhibit a sense of affiliation with Balestier Khalsa, Hougang United and Geylang International, respectively.
Teams like Balestier, Hougang and Tampines Rovers are mostly bankrolled by their club chairmen and secondary sponsors are rarely spotted on the various clubs' jerseys.
Courts with the Young Lions are an exception rather than the norm, and even with only seven local clubs, not enough big Singaporean corporate outfits are coming in to adopt a local team.
Japan: Endo told TNP that J1 and J2 clubs are required to have their own youth academies featuring an Under-15 and Under-18 team.
Scouting and recruiting promising talent from schools of a particular prefecture helps a local community identify with one of their own.
Singapore: At the moment, only three S.League clubs run centres of excellence.
The FAS has talked about running a pilot football programme in primary schools, but it is unclear how S.League clubs will be involved as yet.
Move conveyor belt of best players
Japan: Star Japanese players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda got their feet wet in the J.League before flourishing in Europe, which also helps promote the domestic competition as of one of Asia's top leagues.
Murai said: "One way to raise the local standard of football is for players and coaches to gain experience playing overseas.
"When the J.League started 20 years ago, it was almost unheard of for Japanese players to go to overseas clubs. They weren't good enough.
"I'm proud that so many have now gone abroad. And when they return, they also lift the quality of the game in Japan."
Yamaga president Fumiyuki Kanda added: "It is not just a one-way talent drain. Younger players will be inspired to fulfil their talent.
"It is also the responsibility of clubs to nurture more talent to replace those who have left."
Singapore: While the S.League was still one of Asia's top 10 leagues, star players like Shahril Ishak (from Home United) and Baihakki Khaizan (from Geylang International) secured big-money moves to Indonesia and did well.
Recently, Safuwan Baharudin (formerly with the Courts Young Lions) became the first Singaporean to play and score in the A.League, with Melbourne City.
More can be done, and it is heartening to know the FAS is helping players like former Courts Young Lions goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and former Tampines Rovers forward Khairul Amri secure stints with stronger leagues.
Japan: According to Endo, J1 clubs get around US$2 million per year through broadcasting revenues, sponsors and gate receipts. J2 clubs get half of that. J1 club chairmen are usually full-time staff so they can focus on running their clubs well.
Singapore: S.League clubs typically rely on FAS subsidies, secondary sponsors and revenue from jackpot rooms. Club chairmanship is a voluntary role, and some long-time S.League club chairmen like Tampines Rovers' Teo Hock Seng and Balestier Khalsa's S Thavaneson have pumped in considerable money out of their own pockets.
David Lee's trip is courtesy of Epson Singapore, official partner of the Football Association of Singapore and the official office equipment partner of FAS
Hopefully, S'pore trio will stir interest
HEADING FOR JAPAN? Safuwan Baharudin (right), Izwan Mahbud (inset) and Hariss Harun (left). - TNP, ST FILE PHOTOS
While it is a long shot, some of Singapore's best footballers could have a chance of securing a contract in Japan.
The New Paper spoke to J.League official Kei Koyama at the Karigane Football Centre, training ground of Division 1 side Matsumoto Yamaga, and learnt that an agent has submitted the CVs and videos of Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin to the J.League for consideration.
Koyama, who works in the J.League international relations department, told TNP yesterday: "We have had contact from an agent for Hariss and Safuwan, and this is before the World Cup qualifier between Japan and Singapore, and we have seen their videos.
"We know that Safuwan played in the A.League, and Hariss is a capable midfielder. Izwan (Mahbud) was a surprise during the match, and following the draw, we received a call from the FAS recommending some of their players as well."
The trio represent the best of the Lions on the right side of their 20s.
Hariss, 24, was part of the Malaysian Super League-winning Johor Darul Ta'zim I side last year, while 23-year-old defender Safuwan broke new ground by becoming the first Singaporean to play and score in the A-League, appearing in six matches and netting twice for Melbourne City.
Goalkeeper Izwan, 24, made headlines when he produced 18 saves to help the Lions secure a 0-0 draw against Japan on June 16.
TNP also understands that the FAS have also recommended 30-year-old striker Khairul Amri, who has scored 19 of his 32 international goals in the last three years.
Koyama feels that the best option for this quartet is the December trials, where local and foreign players fight to attract prospective J.League teams.
He added: "As part of our Asian strategy, we want to help develop football in other Asian countries and grow Asian football together. We also want more exposure in other Asian countries, including South-east Asia.
"To be honest, as of now, none of the J.League clubs have signalled their interest in Singaporean players, yet.
"But there are some teams who would be keen to sign an Asian player from our partner countries, which include Singapore and other Asean nations.
"I think the bigger J1 teams could be out of their reach at the moment because the standard is really high and it is tough to get into the first team.
"It is better to find a J2 team where they can play regular football."
Without disclosing further details, Koyama also revealed that 21-year-old star playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin is set to be the first Thai player to sign for the J.League, if he gets the blessings of his current club BEC Tero Sasana.
The only Asean footballers who are plying their trade in Japan are Consadole Sapporo's Indonesia forward Irfan Bachdim and Oita Trinita's Timor Leste midfielder Fellipe, who both play in J2.
It is understood that J2 imports who play regularly in the first team earn an average of about US$10,000 ($13,480).