Following V. Sundramoorthy and his men sealing a first trophy in Malaysian football competitions since 1994, Goal Singapore's Teng Kiat attempts to examine its impactWhen the final whistle sounded at the end of 93 minutes between the LionsXII and Felda United on Tuesday night, Jalan Besar Stadium erupted and roared.
The men in red had just produced a polished second-half performance to demolish the visitors 4-0 after an uncharacteristically nervy first 45 minutes, in the process securing the three points they needed to seal the Malaysian Super League (MSL) title with a game to spare.
It has been a long time since I’ve heard a Singapore crowd react like that. The last time was probably when the Lions edged Malaysia 5-3 in the first leg of their second-round 2014 World Cup qualifier almost two years ago. As the jubilant scenes of the LionsXII lifting the MSL trophy unfolded, one could not help but to ponder upon the implications of the win on local football.
Make no mistake about it: the players deserved to celebrate for all the effort they had put in over the course of a grueling season, and coach V. Sundramoorthy has to be praised for how he has shaped a young squad comprising Under-23 players, with the added experience of five seniors ones, into a title-winning team.
They have shown resilience and tremendous fighting spirit to stay unbeaten at home all season and displayed a never-say-die attitude on the occasions when they fell behind.
Breakout stars like Shakir Hamzah and Faritz Hameed have been produced, while the likes of Safuwan Baharudin and Izwan Mahbud appear to have stepped up their development a notch. Skipper Shahril Ishak has been sensational again, as his 12 league goals and eight assists will attest. The U23 boys will benefit from playing together regularly when they run out at the SEA Games.
But what does this triumph mean for local football? Will it benefit overall development, or is being champions in our neighbours’ backyard really nothing to crow about? Already, there were posts on social media proclaiming the demise of the S.League immediately after the win.
I remember being doubtful about the LionsXII project when it was founded in December 2011, and I wasn’t the only one.
Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin then called it a “team for all Singaporeans”, but there were genuine concerns about what it meant for the S.League, which was already languishing in the doldrums. Those concerns are still valid today, and perhaps even more so.
One thing is for sure: the S.League cannot be allowed to flounder to its demise. It cannot be seen as a poorer cousin to the supposedly more glamorous MSL, with all its promise of recreating the Malaysia Cup fever. Those days are behind us, and Singapore football will never progress if we keep looking back.
Setting up our own professional league in 1996 was seen as the way forward towards raising local football standards. It is thus rather baffling why so many local supporters now prefer to stay away; the stark contrast between crowds for S.League games and LionsXII games at Jalan Besar nowadays is painful and sad to see.
While there is no doubt the U23 players have all largely developed well in the 2013 season, it has to be remembered that the S.League was the source for all of them. The league is still highly relevant and is still the best avenue for promising young talent here to make the breakthrough to a professional career, and it cannot be shunned. The clubs also cannot be allowed to be seen as feeders to the MSL; where would they get the motivation to bring through players then?
Let’s be honest: the LionsXII is not likely to be disbanded any time soon. But will the interests of players like Safuwan, whom I think has the potential to be one of the best defenders in Asia, Izwan and Hariss be best served by playing in a league that is frankly not of a top caliber? I highly doubt so.
And surely we should be aiming for S.League clubs to progress in the AFC Cup and even make it to the AFC Champions League proper, like what Thailand has done with Buriram United. Those will serve as more accurate gauges of whether local football has improved.
The crowd figures have gone up a little this campaign after dismal all-time lows last season, but much, much more can be done to revive the S.League. More resources have to be diverted to local clubs, who must also help themselves by entertaining supporters with attractive football. Sundram himself called for fans to continue backing the S.League after the Felda game, although one suspects he couldn't possibly have said otherwise.
While the LionsXII look set to stay for the foreseeable future, the S.League cannot be neglected; the hardcore supporters who have remained fiercely loyal through the years deserve this much. Here’s over to you, FAS.