Football fraternity divided over semi-pro S.League idea
Five years ago at the launch of the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) Strategic Plan, the S.League was hailed as one of the top 10 in Asia.
Based on the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) assessment algorithm, the Republic's only professional sports league found itself in elite company.
Of late, though, the 20-year-old S.League has lost its lustre, with poor attendance and a paucity of star names in the competition.
As a result, the FAS is conducting a strategic review of the S.League and among the options is for the competition to go semi-professional.
With the Asean Super League (ASL) projected to kick off next year and the LionsXII's participation in the Malaysian Super League also up for review at the end of this season, local football is in a state of flux, with upcoming decisions possibly effecting major changes in the ecosystem here.
The fraternity appears divided on the issue of a semi-pro S.League.
"I will be very sad if it comes to this, it's a backward step. And, if the S.League takes a backwards step, then so will Singapore football," said former Singapore captain, Seak Poh Leong.
Seak, who has had stints as a youth coach and national coach, along with being the FAS technical director from 1985 to 1991, called it a "big negative" for football here, even if there were to remain two professional teams, in the ASL and MSL, with the S.League acting as a feeder competition for those two sides.
Up until the S.League's inception in 1996, the Singapore football scene was first amateur, before turning semi-pro.
There are 10 teams in the current Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League, including three foreign clubs Albirex Niigata of Japan, Brunei DPMM FC and Malaysia's Harimau Muda. The Courts Young Lions are backed by the FAS, and the other six are local entities who depend on their ability to hit pre-set targets, and can receive up to $1 million in subsidies from the FAS each year, a sum that forms a large part of the annual operating cost.
Each of the seven clubs are also expected to generate their own income through sponsorship and the profits from jackpot machines, to put together at least a solid, professionally-run team.
Some struggle to even attract main sponsors, let alone make a profit.
Except for Hougang United.
In April, The New Paper reported that Bill Ng's Hougang United announced a profit of more than $2m in the last year alone. Ng's Cheetahs are well in the black, with profits earned from their clubhouse operations, of which the main feature is the jackpot machines.
But Hougang are a rare success story, and former national youth coach Tay Peng Kee, currently general manager of S.League giants Tampines Rovers, believes going semi-pro could help the sport.
"In the current state that we're in, going semi-pro is not that bad an idea.
"There's not much point in spending that much money on a professional league that isn't going anywhere, and isn't developing enough players," he said, pointing to the limited budgets of S.League clubs that he asserts have led teams to being less professional in their operations.
"If we do go semi-pro, we need to make sure that we have a comprehensive youth development system, with good youth coaches, and that will buy us time to develop players until the time is right for us to turn pro again."
Seak and Tay are both aligned in their thinking on one front - that the local talent pool has diminished because of poor youth development strategies.
Alex Weaver, who led Warriors FC to the S.League title last year, also believes that turning semi-pro would not be a bad move.
"Singapore is a country of some five million people, are we spreading ourselves too thin, expecting a strong, well-supported S.League?
"The evidence suggests that the country cannot sustain a proper professional league," said the Englishman.
"And if the focus is on the ASL and MSL, then it makes it more competitive for players to get into those teams.
"And if you get the youth development right, there is still a conveyor belt of quality young players coming through."
Having had first-hand experience in his native England as well as in the United States where he was previously employed, Weaver added that the definition of what is semi-pro is important.
A core group of top players could receive monthly wages as professionals, with the rest of the team being paid for expenses and match-related bonuses, for example.
"We're not paying our players a lot here, so going semi-pro could see them earning a better living, because they are able to supplement their income with day jobs," said Tay, who played for semi-pro teams in the 1980s.
But former Home United coach Steve Darby offered a stern warning against returning to the old form.
He asserted that such a move would discourage younger players, and his main concern was of a more sinister nature.
"The good old days are filled with false nostalgia - that was the height of match-fixing, with semi-pro teams susceptible to it," he said.
"I don't think going semi-pro will make things better - in fact, it would be a terrible thing to happen."
New-look S.League: Possible scenarios
1. Fewer teams, same funding
A 12-team competition in 2014, the S.League this year comprises only 10 teams, with Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar United not part of the competition. The absence of those two sides allowed the FAS to increase its funding for the remaining teams.
The Tote Board’s five-year cycle of funding for S.League clubs comes to an end this year, with plans for the next cycle as yet unclear, but with the rental of stadiums set to go up again, an increase in funding would help clubs.
2. Going semiprofessional
Some believe that the size of the Singapore population is too small to support a sustainable professional league, so along with, possibly two or three teams playing in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) and the proposed Asean Super League (ASL), the S.League could turn semi-pro.
This would free up funds for elite players in the MSL and ASL teams, while turning the S.League’s attention to youth development to provide a conveyor belt of players. S.League teams could share stadiums, saving cost, while also nurturing a community feel.
3. Same format,more funding
Increased funding is needed to bring in high-quality foreign players that would up the standard of football, which would in turn kick off the virtuous cycle of increased fan and sponsor interest, leading to further improved funding. It could also convince more talented young Singaporeans that local professional football is a viable career option. This scenario seems the most unlikely of the three.
Semi-pro move won't help Lions
Singapore may have beaten Cambodia 4-0 in last month's Group E World Cup qualifiers last month, but the word "minnows" is slowly slipping out of the football vocabulary in the region.
Observers have noted that traditionally weaker teams like the Philippines, Cambodia and even Laos are catching up.
Several people The New Paper spoke to believed that in the context of regional improvement, the Singapore national team will take a hit if the S.League does turn semi-professional.
They say the move will be a slap in the face of all that the S.League stood for when Singapore left Malaysian football competitions in 1994 and set up its own professional league.
"We got out of Malaysian football to start something of our own, for Singapore. This is not just a step backwards, it's a slap in the face for all of those involved then - and I am one of them," said Seak Poh Leong, chairman of S.League competitions in 1997.
"It's very simple, if that (semi-pro) happens, we will have a smaller pool of players and that would mean lower standards for the national team," he added, saying that turning semi-pro with just two or three professional teams plying their trade in the proposed Asean Super League (ASL) and Malaysian Super League (MSL), would leave the national coach with a pool of around only 70 players.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former senior Football Association of Singapore official echoed Seak's sentiments.
He said: "If we have the ASL, MSL and Courts Young Lions (in the S.League) teams, and a semi-pro S.League, what we have is an inverted pyramid. If you build your house from the roof, it will keep collapsing."
While former Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby believes that the long-term effect on the national team will see the Lions slip lower and lower, because "they won't be able to match the intensity at the international level of football", Alex Weaver, coach of S.League champions Warriors FC, does not agree.
"I don't think going semi-pro will set the national team back in the slightest.
Looking at it objectively, you don't need a professional league to have a strong national team," said Weaver, asserting that playing standards in the ASL and MSL would provide a good platform for national players.
"As it stands, there aren't many players from the S.League who are in the national team," he added, pointing to Singapore coach Bernd Stange's selections that draw mainly from the LionsXII and Courts Young Lions.
But some critics argue that staying with a professional S.League does not mean sticking with the current system, but improving on it and eventually give the national coach an even bigger pool of players to choose from.
Former Singapore international Tay Peng Kee, does not believe the national team would be hit by a move to turn the S.League semi-professional, but he conceded that Singapore's only professional sports competition has lost its shine since its bright start in 1996.
"Our own league was initially very successful but, then things dwindled, maybe because we didn't keep up with the changing times and manage it properly," he said. "It seems to have died a natural death."
Balestier on the rise
Balestier Khalsa continued their climb up the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League table with a comfortable 2-0 win over Harimau Muda at the Toa Payoh Stadium last night.
Two goals in four minutes in the first half gave the home side their second win in four days. Last Friday, Balestier beat The New Paper League Cup winners Albirex Niigata 1-0 away from home.
Last night against the Malaysian tyros, in-form attacking midfielder Miroslav Kristic scored from the penalty spot in the 26th minute after he went down in the box under a Syawal Nordin challenge.
Four minutes later, winger Zulkiffli Hassim raced onto a long punt from goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam and made it 2-0.
The win helped Balestier, with 20 points, leapfrog Tampines Rovers into fourth in the 10-team league, four points behind leaders and defending champions Warriors FC.
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ