THE re-named SPL (Singapore Professional League) kicks off this weekend with, for the first time, a shared-stadium concept, which has irked the football fraternity, who are crying out for a value-add professional league.
Eight of the locally-based clubs will share four stadiums as part of a new, rather controversial, initiative aimed at consolidating resources and improving match-day experience for fans, says the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).
The move will see Home United and Balestier Khalsa share Bishan stadium, Young Lions and Hougang United share Jalan Besar stadium, Albirex Niigata and Warriors FC share Jurong East Stadium and Tampines Rovers and Geylang International share Our Tampines Hub.
FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari said that the stadium optimisation plan would allow the four venues to be more “football-centric”. By his theory, this is also part of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s Sports Facilities Master Plan.
“There’s a consolidation of resources so that there’s a focus on each of these four stadiums to have (those) programmes purely for football – more football-centric,” he says.
In my opinion, after 23 years, from the start of the S-League in 1996 (where I sat on the board of Tampines Rovers under then-Minister Mah Bow Tan) to today, if the FAS cannot get their stadium-markers right, and, more importantly, lure younger fans to support the SPL, they better throw in the towel.
Simply because a rousing atmosphere at a sports stadium can make the difference for both the players on the pitch and the spectators in the stands. And you don’t need a rocket scientist to tell you that it’s easy to engineer that sense of crowd magic if the right fan-based spadework is done consistently with the heartlander crowds in Tampines, Woodlands, Hougang and Toa Payoh.
Mind you, the early S-League years saw crowds of 23,000 at the-then National Stadium in Kallang and even in the 1980s when the semi-professional NFL (National Football League) kicked off, under former FAS Chairman Nadesan Ganesan, capacity-crowds of 5,000 fans were the norm at makeshift stadiums like Tanglin Pitch and Geylang Stadium.
Die-hard football fan Razali Ramli from Toa Payoh North says he’s “very disappointed” with the FAS. He says: “Just look at the ‘Home of Football’. The nickname the Theatre of Dreams for Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium was never intended to evoke a sleepy atmosphere. But the English club has thought out-of-the-box and even taken on an acoustic engineer to see how they can boost noise levels in the ground.
“Simply because a good atmosphere in a stadium matters to the business people who run sport because it can attract even more ticket buyers.”
Schoolteacher Jason Tong from Bukit Merah says “the boost a lively crowd gives to the home team and the way it can intimidate the opposition can also help bring success, and therefore money, to a club”.
He says: “The FAS must have been sleeping for over 20 years in not being able to create a value-add atmosphere in a sports stadium. Simply put, you have to achieve a connection between the spectator and the event. The closer that is, the better the atmosphere will be.”
Danny Quah, from the famous Quah football family, ponders if the shared-stadium-concept is merely about “synergy savings”. He says: “Well if we had enough facilities, I’d rather each team have their own stadiums to create the inspiring ‘home’ atmosphere for their own fans. We must revive home-based football here, by hook or crook. It creates feelings of belonging, ownership and territorial atmosphere!”.
Big sponsors, too, will think twice, says Joe Keiser, General Manager of Bukit Timah Juniors, formerly representing AC Milan in Singapore and now working with a consortium of teams in northern Italy to promote young Asian football talent.
He says: “First about the physical aspect of dual use…while shared tenancy of stadiums makes financial sense on cost measures, it can be expected to either increase logistics costs or severely decrease the quality of technical operations of the club, which includes both first team and, also, youth Academy development.
“Storage facilities will have to be doubled. Specialised and proprietary training equipment duplicated. Manpower resources increased. These are the hidden costs of a proper technical player development programme. Naively underestimating their importance can be expected to have a direct impact on the quality of play.”
He cites heartlander SPL club Hougang United as a glowing example. From its grassroots terrain in Hougang, it now has to play its home matches at Jalan Besar Stadium, sharing with the Young Lions.
“Hougang fans are a die-hard crop. They support the team of their community,” he says. “Just think if you are a Hougang supporter, and you go out for a meal, drop into the match, and then go for a coffee afterwards, surrounded by your fellow fans. Now Hougang United will play half-way across the island, in the city.
“This impacts the fan cohesion, and erodes the fan base. Will small businesses in Hougang advertise their services in Jalan Besar Stadium? And consider also when two clubs share a stadium? Will advertisers want to put up signage which is only displayed for one game and then taken down? With sponsors, football clubs will remain beholden to their benefactors, who are now SportSG.”
“The importance of the linkages between the fan base and the club are ignored only at the peril of the club. I look at the teams in Italy. Where 9,500 amateur teams can survive with the support of their fans who make an attractive advertising market for local sponsors. Remember always, that fans support the teams of their communities.”
Former Hougang United coach Johana Johari, an ex-Lion City Cup striker in the late 1970s, slammed the FAS as the “current arrangements don’t help in motivating players, officials and even fans…it’s just like sharing wives or husbands!”.
He says: “There’s absolutely no identity and will definitely affect natural home team admospheres. There’s no sense of belonging. Mind you, this is the SPL, not a ‘rojak’ tournament, and the FAS must honour home and away matches.
“FAS should endeavour to bring football to all neighbourhood stadiums instead, for their own convenience, of merely going through the motion to complete the pro league. It’s very sad for Singapore football because current arrangements are a stab-in-the-back for a 23-year-old pro league.”
My faraway colleague, Daily Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter has visited umpteen stadiums across the world. “The best ones are like ravines, like the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Valencia in Spain and the Juventus Stadium in Turin. You have the feeling of being on top of the pitch,” he says.
CREATING AN ATMOSPHERE
“Creating an atmosphere is not only about generating as much noise as possible. It is also about making the fans feel they are part of an event and giving them an experience they could not get by watching it on television at home.”
Probably the most famous arrangement of ground sharing, he says, is between the second and third most successful clubs in Italy with 18 league titles each and 10 Champions League/European Cup titles between them.
The San Siro can house 80,000 people and is owned by the Municipality of Milan. AC Milan have occupied the stadium since 1926 and Inter began using the ground in 1947 after moving from a host of grounds around the city.
The San Siro is an iconic venue in football with an intense rivalry between the two sets of fans who are drawn from different social sections of the city according to research.
Back to the SPL or the S-League: Poor standards of play and sub-standard overseas players have inevitably drew pathetic crowds, so much so as 17-year-old schoolboy Ravi Jeyandran from Bartley Road says “even if you give tickets free, you’re not going to have a better crowd, simply because the quality of play is just ordinary”.
Rather ambitiously, despite a SPL stage without big-name overseas players, the FAS is targeting an average attendance of 2,200 per game this season, says Yazeen Buhari, with numbers doubling from an average of about 900 in 2017 to 1,800 per game last year.
“It may not look big as far as numbers are concerned…but if you look at the stadiums which on average hold about 3,000, an average attendance of 1,800 was something we looked at positively. Of course, we would like to see that increased,” he says.
He claims that there was also a total viewership of 1.17 million for the 98 league games live-streamed online last season when the league underwent a major overhaul last season, with a name change from S-League to Singapore Premier League (SPL) as part of efforts to revive its ailing fortunes, 22 years after its founding.
LOOK AT NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOURS
My appeal to the FAS: Just look at neighbours Thailand and Malaysia, with the leading teams signing 24 players from outside those countries as the 2019 season kicks off. Some of the best players from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines have signed for teams in the Malaysia Super League and the Thai Premier League.
With this cross-pollination, the tournaments are looking to improve their fortunes both on and off the field by attracting new fans in the region. This eight-fold increase in talent in two of the leading leagues in the region has not happened by accident, says Singaporean Benjamin Tan, who is Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Thai League and Director of Club Licensing.
He engineered the move to have one mandatory slot reserved only by players from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). That means coaches can import talent from neighbouring nations without using up a slot that could be used by more traditional imports from South America and Europe.
“I’m glad we managed to convince the clubs to implement this policy. At first they were skeptical, but now they can see the benefits,” says Benjamin Tan, a former FAS senior employee who recently headed for greener football pastures in Thailand.
He sees the moves as beneficial for Thailand, regarded as the strongest soccer nation in South-east Asia, as the country seeks to grow and challenge the leading Asian soccer powers, including Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Iran. The Thai League is already the best in the region and the only one that has automatic representation in the Asian Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition.
“We want to raise the level of ASEAN players,” says Benjamin Tan. “They can play in Thailand in a very competitive environment and improve. Eventually, this will raise the level of play everywhere and benefit all. A strong ASEAN region helps Thailand become strong.”
Back to the SPL: Whatever, the moment of truth will come in a matter of days. The acid test of shared-stadium-concept begins when the tournament begins in early March, with a curtain-raiser on February 23 when defending champions Albirex Niigata face Home United in the Community Shield.
Seriously, the ball is in the court of the FAS: In my opinion, the shared stadium concept, which has generally irked the football fraternity, is a major gamble especially since Singaporeans are crying out for a value-add professional league, mixed with quality foreign and local players.
Sometimes, you wonder if the FAS is simply going through the motions to do the SPL fixtures and finish it off, regardless of sincerely looking into the importance of building a worthy professional league-culture.