Let’s face it: Singapore’s football dream is a lost cause. The initial plan was to make the 2022 World Cup, but that has been pushed back to 2034, according to Edwin Tong, vice-president of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). At the risk of sounding mean spirited, I’m beginning to doubt that I’d live to see the day Singapore makes it to the World Cup.
Unlike what teams in the Premier League, Serie A, and Bundesliga typically face, Singapore’s football problem isn’t so much poor management or wage woes (more on this later). Instead, it’s how the entire system is structured.
One hurdle here is National Service (NS), which effectively removes every member of the male population for two years for compulsory service in either the military or its civilian counterpart. Its importance and necessity cannot be overstated of course, considering Singapore’s limited resources. However, it does beg the question: cannot an exception be made for the talented few who have that rare chance of putting our nation on the map?
Take Ben Davis for example. The Singaporean youngster recently debuted for Championship side Fulham in the Carabao Cup. It’s an amazing achievement considering the competition he faced. The price Davis paid? Defaulting on his National Service obligations and risking a S$10,000 fine, with the possibility of a three-year prison sentence, should he ever return to Singapore.
Davis’ deferment application was rejected by MINDEF on the grounds of it being for personal pursuit. Following the rejection, he was called up for Thailand’s national football team. Personal pursuit or not, the fact remains that Ben Davis could have been of much value in furthering Singapore’s sporting scene. Joseph Schooling got a deferment, albeit to serve the nation at the Olympics, but look at the result of what was essentially a gamble – a risk taken on a talented sportsman.
Most Singaporeans go through NS between the ages of 18 and 21, which also happens to be the time where budding footballers are handed the opportunities to shine. Kylian Mbappe is a good example. At 20, the Frenchman is already regarded as one of the best players in the world. He made his first senior appearance at 16, when he came on for the Ligue 1 club Monaco. Today, he plies his trade at Paris Saint-Germain alongside superstars Neymar and Cavani. Had he been hauled in for NS, his football career and development would have been grievously disrupted.
Systemic and cultural hurdles
In addition to National Service, the general issue of Singaporean culture can be faulted for our nation’s failure to excel in football as well. In 2017, the Home United Youth Football Academy (HYFA) facility at Mattar Road was handed an injunction by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) after some residents from a nearby HDB block complained of noise from the people playing football. HYFA was then disallowed from utilising its two 11-a-side pitches on weekends and only allowed to use the pitches up to 7pm on weekdays. At the time, a football school which had 1,200 students was renting the HYFA facilities but as result of the injunction, they had to relocate.
It’s understandable that football is banned at void decks due to its very obvious obstruction of human traffic, production of noise and potential damage to property. However, even courts and fields that were built for football are sometimes deemed out of bounds due to residents’ complaints.
Measuring success in Singapore
Naturally, Singaporean parents are more inclined to encourage their children to focus on academics compared to sports. It takes a great deal of time, sacrifice, dedication and a certain amount of risk for an individual to wholly commit themselves to a sport as a profession. Sometimes, an individual’s family might not necessarily have the required income to sustain a budding sportsman’s lifestyle even if they wanted to.
It doesn’t help either that footballers in Singapore make only a few thousand dollars a month, and only if they’re good at that. Singaporean footballers plying their trade in the lower divisions earn even less — around S$500 a month. By comparison, their counterparts in Europe and the Americas are raking in far higher salaries, even in the lower leagues. Job and financial security are low and there aren’t many prospects for those that hang up their boots.
What then? Instead of Singapore football, how about three other sports that we should be investing more time and money in?
In light of Joseph Schooling, well, schooling the competition to bring home Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal three years ago, the need to give this sport proper attention comes as a no-brainer. His triumph rallied the nation, and reminded the older ones that Swimming has been a strong suite for Singapore in regional and international competitions for decades. Since we already have swimming pools in place in nearly every estate here, we would only need a good programme to identify and groom promising swimmers and help them to excel.
Bet you didn’t see this one coming. Or maybe you did but either way, this sport isn’t for everyone. Compared to the more commonly played sports in Singapore like badminton or table tennis, shooting is more of a niche sport. Like swimming, it has been proven to win medals. Just look at National Shooter Jasmine Ser, whose honours include four Commonwealth Games medals – three of which are gold, and a silver Asian Games medal. Shooting ranges and air rifles aren’t the most accessible in Singapore though. As a result, budding shooters and those with an interest in the sport won’t always be able to practise or receive exposure. A little investment – in terms of time and finances – could prove beneficial to our country’s medal cabinet.
A modern pentathlon consists of fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, cross-country running, and shooting. For the first time ever, it will be featured in the upcoming SEA Games which will be held in the Philippines from 30 November to 10 December. At the time of writing, the Singapore Modern Pentathlon Association (SIMPA) has completed the selection process to determine which athletes will be representing the nation at said games.
More resources should be invested in the sport for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s a budding sport which has the potential to produce star athletes. Secondly, a pentathlon removes several genetic advantages that our competitors from other countries might possess, with height and weight being such examples. It’s a known fact that most of our Western counterparts are naturally much taller and bigger than the average Singaporean. Lastly, it’s something fresh that most people don’t know much about. The introduction of such a diverse sport could be the catalyst to spurring the next generation of athletes to try their hands at something different. Who knows? This may just be the one sport that Singapore outdoes its competitors at.