Why Singapore Football Is In Shambles? (And We All Know It)
Esquire Singapore turns the conversation to the people on the field, the players, to find out how this mess is affecting them.
BY Lestari Hairul | Aug 11, 2017 | Culture
The stadium is just about half-full but you can still feel a smidgen of excitement in the air. Not quite the palpable electric of big games, this one’s tempered by a family-friendly nature. The only sign of a possible skirmish is when a drum-playing Warriors fan stands up to yell in the face of another, older fan for doubting the prowess of their team. Something of the interaction reminds me of Neil Humphreys’ Match Fixer, of old men betting on whichever team will give them the most returns. Whole families replete with granny pushing the stroller, some dads with sons, even a mother-and-son pair, watch in rapt attention. Home United scores again and again, but each time their goal song plays, the Warriors fans’ clearest and only gripe is “referee bodoh [stupid]”.
From up here, one can clearly see that the pitch is patchy. “The fields that we play are not the greatest, and I think if we had better fields we’d be able to play better football,” Jordan Webb, the Warriors’ winger, tells me earlier in the day. He might have been referring to other fields that he’s played on before, but the one belonging to Chua Chu Kang Stadium doesn’t really look all that great to me either. Still, they carry on and make do, playing the sport that they love for the fans that love it too.
February 6, 2001: Mohd Noh Alam Shah of Singapore celebrating after scoring the late equaliser against Kuwait. The 2002 World Cup Qualifier Asian Zone Group 4 tie was held at the National Stadium.
Pay the bills
“For me, playing through the years, it’s been pretty much the same thing. Nothing has really changed; the fields, the balls, the fans. It’ll only be good for a couple of the first games, and then it dies down. It’s been like that every year. It’s all the same, everything’s the same,” Webb continues. “The only thing that’s kind of really bad for me is the fields. Everything else is just okay. But they do take care of the foreigners. Each club that I’ve been to, they pretty much take care of the foreigners really well. That’s a good thing.”
For the last seven years, Webb has been playing for the S-League. He’s expressed an interest in playing for the national team several times before in the media, but is only now in the process of applying for his Permanent Residence. That will set him on the path to eventual citizenship, hopefully, joining the ranks of several other naturalised Singaporean players who’ve contributed to the local football scene.
But many of Webb’s teammates don’t earn as much as he does. “It’s tough for them; I feel that they should be paid more. Say, if you pay a local player SGD8,000 a month, you’re going to get a player who comes to training earlier. He’s going to train harder and be better,” Webb notes. “But when you give them SGD2,000, they have to work another job. And it’s hard. And then people want the greatest on the field but you’re paying these guys only a little bit of money.”
His account corroborates what former S-League player Duncan Elias had told me about his years as a professional footballer, and what he’d found as a broadcast sports journalist for Eleven Sports:
“I’m earning more now than I have ever earned as a professional footballer. And that’s not right. Because a professional football career is very short. You should expect to earn much more than the average person. Once they are done, they don’t really have as many options as a normal person because maybe they are not as educated, or they have been out of the workforce and nobody’s going to hire someone who is 35 without any experience. It’s tough for players, and that’s why they drive Uber. Professional footballers drive Uber in Singapore, and that’s because they are not earning enough money. If you’re an average player, you’re going to earn between SGD2,000 and SGD3,000 now. As a national player, you’ll earn more, maybe between SGD5,000 and SGD6,000, depending on your standard.”
The issue of pay matching labour, and the expectations of paying a certain amount to get a certain quality in return, is one that afflicts any industry. Those following the local football scene closely know only too well about the dismal pay players receive. The reports of Uber-driving pro footballers aren’t a surprise. It is the realisation that out of all the sports in Singapore, football enjoys certain monetary privileges that other even less well-funded sports do not have. The griping over the declining standards of the game played here follows each report on the amount of money flowing into the FAS. For a sport that has not earned much accolades playing in the international field in recent history, the game is seemingly well-flush. But divided amongst the clubs, money doesn’t appear to be flowing to the players, nor to their development.
“Sometimes, they can’t really pump money in because it’s not really a profitable sport here. So, you can’t really go and spend SGD20,000 to SGD25,000. You’re just going to lose money. It’s hard to profit from the sport here,” says Webb. Privatisation comes up time and time again as a possible answer, but that may open up another issue entirely: looking at the dire straits that local football is in, what private entity would want to fund a sport that barely has a loyal fanbase?
For Neil Humphreys, it is the problem of Singapore having a sports celebrity culture instead of a true sports culture. There is money, somewhere, but it is being wasted on things like bringing Jermaine Pennant in to play for a season at a local club, or setting up a Ronaldinho football academy that closed down without a single training session ever taking place. It is brand names, the futile hope that a celebrity can bring in the fans that local players alone cannot, but not actually having the means or the funds to pay for something like that or to sustain
it in the long run.
“I have to say Jermaine Pennant is right, even Lionel Messi wouldn’t save the S-League. Not overnight. He would fill the stadiums—of course, he would; he’s Lionel Messi. For a few months, he’d be on the front and back pages, and then he’d leave. And then we’d be back to square one,” says Humphreys. “And whichever club signed him will be close to bankrupt. Because there’s no way they could sustain his wages—even if they’ve got corporate sponsorship. It doesn’t work. It’s got to be a long-term approach.”
As a foreigner, Webb earned SGD800-plus a month take-home pay when he started, and then his wages gradually increased to SGD2,500. “I had to earn that. Just imagine how much some locals would get in comparison. It’s not great. I feel they should give locals more money so they can improve and not have to worry about being an Uber driver or doing something outside of football,” he adds.
Very few parents, especially Singaporean parents, would want their offspring to go down a career path that won’t guarantee financial stability. The issues of pay don’t only affect current players and their development in the sport; it is really the key to attracting and retaining future players, which, in turn, affects the longevity of the game here.
“The pay in the S-League is not high enough. You can work outside to get the same amount in football. And on top of that, there’s no security after 10 to 20 years of being in it. It’s better for you to work outside where you know you get job security over the years,” says retired national footballer, Noh Alam Shah. “I think right now the pay is maybe a third of what I earned in the past. National players are maybe earning half of what I earned. I’ve heard of Prime League players (Prime League is a tier below S-League) being paid hundreds. For me, if you are a football player, SGD100 to SGD900 per month doesn’t count. They will tell you, [to justify the pay] ‘You’re still in school and you just come here two hours a day.’ But they’re still expecting you to give your best. I was paid SGD1,300 at the age of 16. And these players that I know who are earning the low salary are between 20 and 21 years old; that’s how bad it is. When I was getting paid SGD1,300 at the age of 16, the only way I could see was up, and I didn’t want to lose that amount or go anywhere lower than that. So, I worked really hard. But now, if you get only SGD900, you know that you can get more working at McDonald’s, right? How can you grow in the sport?”
It’s a problem that compounds itself. Players aren’t getting enough pay so they take up a second job, leaving them sapped of the energy and the concentration needed to improve their game. Poor players lead to poor performance on the pitch, which, in turn, leads to dwindling fan support. Dwindling fan support means eventually even more dwindling funds to keep the clubs afloat. Zero-sum.
But Humphreys has a radical idea. “Singapore football will never improve while 70 percent of its population don’t take the game seriously. That’s it. Everything else is window dressing. Until the Chinese take the sport seriously again as a viable career, nothing will change. I have never found any other nation in FIFA where its majority race is not represented in the national team,” he observes. “It’s not about race or racism; it’s about depriving yourselves of your talent pool. What if, in the England national team, for whatever reason, Caucasians stopped playing the game, and you had to rely on the minority races to represent England? There wouldn’t be enough talent.”
He continues: “I’ve heard a thousand times that in primary school or secondary school, there’s a healthy representation of all races. It’s a neat microcosm of how Singapore is. You’ve got Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, whatever all playing the game. And the Chinese, like the other races, are talented players! But then you get to lower secondary or past PSLE, and the parents or themselves or peer pressure or whatever it might be say no, enough. ‘Can’t take it seriously as a career, you can’t disrupt your studies, the football has to go.’” Kiasu (anxiously selfish) parents are not going to allow their kids to play a sport in which they see no future. And what better measurement of success—to them—than the salary?
If, in the rare, brilliant chance, parents all over Singapore have somehow been convinced that football is the sport they’d take a chance on, the mission to make Singaporean football great again will be felled by government forces.
“Promising young boys may reach a certain point where they can be sent overseas to play. Oops, sorry, can’t do that because MINDEF is calling and he needs to serve National Service for two years,” says Elias. “Those two years are crucial. Players will come to a point where they need to be playing football regularly, and usually we get called up for NS at 18 or 19. Boys are usually cracked into the professional scene at that age. You can’t be breaking into the scene when you’re 21 or 22, that’s already too late in modern football.
“If they’re posted into armoury or a battalion that stays in and they only get to go home on the weekends, then they’re not going to play football for two years. When they return, and the fire still burns in them, it takes them a season or two to get back into it. You’ll have to think about all the lost development that they could have had during those two years.
“Harriss Harun is talented. Faris Ramli is having a great season right now for Singapore. But I wonder if they could have been at this level two years ago. They could be at a much higher level than where they are right now if they hadn’t lost the experience of playing football for those two years.”
At press time, FAS and MINDEF are in talks about this issue. Joseph Schooling’s example proved the point spectacularly, and perhaps his experience could eventually pave the way for other sports and athletes as well.
“Football gave me dreams instead of nightmares. The day I got scouted, I was with five friends. The scout was having the selection and he saw us under the void deck, near the field and told us to join in. He believed that out of those loitering under the void deck, there’s definitely one or two worth their weight in gold,” says Noh Alam Shah.
“Within seconds, I was told, ‘Okay, you sit down, you’re selected already.’ My friends and I eventually grew apart because I saw an opportunity in football. Of the four, I think two were hanged for drug trafficking. The other two got prison time, and I don’t know where they are now. If I hadn’t been scouted, if I hadn’t been given football, that’s basically the path that I would have taken.”
Talk about football in Singapore and someone, invariably, will bring up the “Malaysia Cup days” to compare with the state of football today. They were the glory days in most Singaporean minds, when the nation stood together against a common enemy, our neighbour. But that’s a strange attitude to take if one were to aspire to football greatness. There were amazing players during those times, but the fixation on Malaysia Cup is utterly parochial. It is to the future that we must look, to formulate a sustainable long-term plan that can revitalise the sport here and,
vitally, change the culture.
Humphreys describes Singapore as not having a sports culture. Rather, it’s a sports-betting culture, and one that is more obsessed with celebrity than a true love of the game. This explains the ease with which we turn on our own teams, Singapore and English clubs included. Who doesn’t love a winner more than a Singaporean? But the path to greatness requires a lot more than bandying about short-term solutions that don’t work; it’s in sticking to the long-term exhaustive work that also includes a great deal of stumbling at the beginning.
Perhaps, more pertinently, it’s also bringing the focus back to the literal players. The ones who actually play the game, and the ones in the future who could play the game if the conditions are right.
“I hope that Singapore football will save more lives. Like mine. Save more troubled kids and put them on a path,” says Shah. “I hope that Singapore football will, instead of winning games, win lives, which is much better. Losing 10-0 to another country, but knowing that the 11 persons on the team can walk a different path in life like I did, is already a winner in my books.”
The Warriors catch up this time, in lightning-quick succession goal after goal is scored and the crowd, on the side of the blues, goes wild. It’s just the start. There are many more matches to go, but for now, the fans are satiated and loving the team.
This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, August 2017.