Singapore football 2015 — more lows than highs
A review of S'pore football in 2015 - two historic moments, but more lows than highs
The result stunned not only Singapore but also the rest of Asia.
With icons V Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad on the sidelines, Izwan Mahbud and his brave Lions held Asian giants Japan to a 0-0 draw in a World Cup qualifier.
That cool night in Saitama on June 16 was the brightest spark in a dull 2015 and will indeed be remembered as one of Singapore football's finest achievements.
That was three weeks after Fandi's LionsXII pulled off another upset in the Malaysian FA Cup final to beat favourites Kelantan 3-1.
But the swagger that these two results injected into local football merely papered over the cracks in a year when there was little else to shout about for Singapore football.
Six months after the LionsXII captured the FA Cup trophy, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) unilaterally decided not to extend the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that had seen them participate in Malaysian competitions since 2012, and a Malaysian Under-23 side play in the S.League.
In one fell swoop on Nov 25, the FAM threw Singapore football into disarray.
It booted the LionsXII into limbo, removed its Harimau Muda from the S.League and upset whatever changes the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) had planned for the S.League.
Ahead of today's Annual General Meeting, the FAS has yet to announce what the 21st edition of the S.League will look like.
While Singaporeans may blame the FAM for the LionsXII's unceremonious exit, introspection is necessary for the disastrous group-stage departure from the football competition at June's South-east Asia Games.
In the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence, sports came to the forefront with the hosting of the biennial SEA Games and, while several sports exceeded expectations in an all-time best haul of 259 medals (84 gold, 73 silver, 102 bronze), football flopped.
The FAS spent some $3.5 million in the lead-up to the Games, but the investment failed to pay dividends.
Amid rumblings about internal dissent - both in the team and the FAS management - coach Aide Iskandar resigned after the 1-0 loss to Indonesia that saw his team booted out.
Lawrence Wong, then the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said: "My sense of it is that football needs a deep hard look at (its) broader ecosystem... (and) what are the objectives it is looking to achieve?"
Sport Singapore chief executive Lim Teck Yin was harsher when he spoke to The New Paper in June.
"Very clearly, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to clarify the direct outcomes that we're hoping to see from every major initiative from football," he said.
"And how those outcomes accumulate in the larger positioning of football and quality of football we see in Singapore."
Lim's words ring true, resonating in almost every aspect of football with poor performances by local sides in age-group competitions and the S.League.
In March, Singapore's Under-22 side were handed a favourable draw, with a decent chance of qualifying for next year's AFC Under-23 tournament in Qatar as one of five best second-placed teams in the 10 qualifying groups.
They expectedly lost to China 5-0, but were held to draws by minnows Laos and Mongolia, and fell short.
Later in August at the Lion City Cup, an annual Under-16 competition that featured Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, both Singapore sides failed to make the final of the quadrangular won by the London club, and were lambasted by FAS' head coach of national youth teams, Richard Tardy.
He said: "Our level is not good enough. Honestly, we need to progress a lot more. We need better technique, better mentality, and we need to change things in our training sessions, and help our coaches improve."
Things were no better in the S.League, where for the first time in its 20-year history, all three trophies were won by foreign clubs.
Brunei DPMM won the league, while Japanese side Albirex Niigata secured a cup Double, winning the RHB Singapore Cup and The New Paper League Cup.
Foreign players and coaches also swept the major gongs at the S.League's annual awards.
International media company MP & Silva inked a six-year, $25-million deal with the FAS in February, the biggest commercial deal in local football history, sparking much optimism.
But even that was dampened.
The FAS has confirmed that next month's Merlion Cup - slated to be the first of 20 events in the deal - would be postponed.
This came after MP & Silva pulled out of negotiations with the Singapore Sports Hub due to cost issues surrounding its proposed use of the National Stadium as the venue. Football's relationships with its commercial partners may have been strained, but not to a critical level.
But, if it does not repair its ties with world governing body, Fifa, football in Singapore could come to a standstill.
In July, the FAS received instructions from Fifa to review its constitution to allow for a full election of council members to align itself with Fifa's line that associations must operate "independently and with no influence from third parties".
Under the FAS' constitution, all council members are appointed by the minister in charge of sports, with the association coming under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
The FAS has already postponed its AGM from Sept 30 to today, but has promised to comply with Fifa demands by March.
Brunei have been banned from all football activities because of a similar issue, with Indonesia still serving a ban for similar transgressions.
A NEW HOPE
But it is not all doom and gloom.
"Looking at how our football went this year, I don't think we can go any lower in 2016," said former FAS technical director, P N Sivaji.
"We can only go up from here, and there are things already in place that we can look forward to."
Sivaji, also a former national coach, hailed the FAS' move to secure Michel Sablon as its technical director.
Appointed in April, he was the mastermind behind a revolution that has taken tiny Belgium to the top of Fifa's world rankings.
The Belgian (left) has already made inroads into grassroots football, even working on changes in the way schools run their tournaments.
The whole-hearted backing given to Khairul Anwar and his cerebral palsy national team at this month's Asean Para Games illustrated a real love for the sport in the country.
Now, with the LionsXII squad split up and all the players bar one (Safuwan Baharudin) returning to S.League clubs, the local fan's attention will be undivided.
This, along with the proposed FAS elections in March, could well provide a platform for football to regain its footing and, perhaps, even regain its swagger.
Our level is not good enough. Honestly, we need to progress a lot more.
— FAS’ head coach of national youth teams, Richard Tardy, on the young players
JUBILATION: Fans celebrating the LionsXII’s triumphant return after winning the Malaysian FA Cup in May. Three weeks later, The New Paper feted the Lions and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud’s heroics in holding mighty Japan to a 0-0 draw in Saitama (above).