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Step up or pack up, Harimau Muda

By Bhas Kunju | Chief Editor, Goal Singapore

Ten games into the new season of the S.League and we've seen a few surprises. Tampines Rovers' 2-1 win over Brunei DPMM at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium would count as a major surprise along with Hougang's upset over the Stags.

Under former Blackburn man Steve Kean's stewardship, the Brunei side have looked impressive and they sit at the top of the S.League table with eight wins from 10 matches.

Right at the other end, rooted to bottom with zero points are Harimau Muda B, who are into their second season in the S.League following the switch with Harimau Muda A, who played in 2012.

Their record so far reads like this:

10 Matches Played
10 Losses
8 Goal Scored
31 Goals Conceded

That's a shocking 10 straight defeats in a row. In comparison, the team directly above them in the standings, their Singaporean peers, Courts Young Lions, have two wins and a draw to their name already, including an upset over high-flying Hougang United.

The other victory? A 3-2 win against Harimau Muda at Pasir Gudang Stadium despite being down to nine men.

Yes, Young Lions have the benefit of foreign players in Jordan Webb and Sherif El-Masri, but they also have to contend with the demands of National Service. So overall, I believe the advantage evens out.

Following the one goal they scored in the 2-1 loss to struggling Tanjong Pagar United in the opening round on February 24, Harimau Muda have only found the net in three other matches, in 3-2 defeats to Tampines and to Courts Young Lions, and a 4-3 home loss to the Cheetahs.

The record is abysmal. Apart from the obvious streak of 10 consecutive losses, their goalscoring record that averages 0.8 goals per game is the worst in the league as well, as is their goals concession rate, which stands at 3.1 goals per game.

With the gulf in difference this obvious for the Malaysian side, the immediate question that comes to mind is, why even bother competing in the S.League?

Ong Kim Swee's Harimau Muda A side did reasonably better in their debut season in 2012, finishing fourth, just six points behind runners-up DPMM.

But the older Harimau Muda side then opted to relocate to Europe for the following season with Ong officially stating that it would offer an unfair advantage to Singapore to observe his Under-23 side in a SEA Games year.

The explanation made little sense, given that the LionsXII, the defacto Singapore Under-23 side were playing openly in the top tier in Malaysia. Unofficial reports, on the other hand, cited the Malaysians' perceived lack of competitive standard in the S.League as the reason for the upheaval.

Nevertheless the move paid little dividends anyway as Harimau Muda lost to their Singapore counterparts in the Bronze medal playoff at the Sea Games that year to return home empty-handed.

Strong home support for DPMM in their 4-1 win over Balestier

Now, the Harimau Muda A team inexplicably compete in Australia at semi-professional level in the National Premier League Queensland. Reports suggest the team are languishing in ninth place in a 13-team league made up of clubs featuring largely part-time players.

But that's a concern for the Football Association of Malaysia. However, what goes in the S.League should be of concern to the average Singaporean.

To their credit, Harimau Muda B avoided a bottom place finish last season in their debut campaign. With eight wins they finished 12 points clear of wooden spoonists Courts Young Lions, who had a season to forget that was plighted with injuries and National Service disruption.

This season, finishing a place off the foot of the table for Harimau Muda looks like a mighty achievement in itself after the first 10 games, just a few rounds shy of the half-way mark of the season.

What purpose does a team that is clearly not competitive serve in the S.League? Firstly, why allow the standard of the S.League to degrade in accepting a team that is clearly struggling to cope?

Yes, there have been four narrow defeats, including one against the reigning league champions, but the scoreline flatters to deceive. The goals conceded were more a case of lacklustre defending on the part of the victors then a match closely fought and narrowly lost. The outcome was always going to be the same, a win for whoever plays Harimau Muda B.

In theory, foreign teams work wonders for the standard of the league, if they themselves are of the right standard.

Brunei DPMM raising the bar this year has finally knocked Tampines off the perch after a string of relative strolls to the title. This allows the rest of the clubs to raise their game and as a result the league is far more competitive now.

Albirex Niigata, the first foreign team to play in the S.League have been a model of profession and stability. Their contribution to the league is immeasurable.

So what's the value addednes that Harimau Muda are bringing to Singapore football? The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that led to their introduction in the S.League was meant to contribute to the mutual development of football in both nations. Are Harimau Muda B bringing anything of value?

Across the causeway the hardcore Malaysian fans may not take kindly to a Singaporean team having won their domestic championship last year, but what they got in return was a competitive league that pushed their own teams to the brink. This year the Malaysian teams have stepped up, key members of the LionsXII have been brought in by an ambitious local club, and the title-winning coach has been poached to lead another.

Can Singapore football say the presence of Harimau Muda B has been beneficial? If anything a cannon fodder team in the league has only compromised the standard of the S.League.

Furthermore, Harimau Muda play their home games at the largely inconvenient Pasir Gudang Stadium in Johor. With the S.League already battling issues over attendance it seems impractical to place another hurdle for local fans to follow the competition. At least, DPMM can account for a significant attendance figure when they play at the 30,000 capacity Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium, expanding the S.League's outreach to neighbouring nations.

Harimau Muda B playing to a near-empty stadium in a home game against Geylang

The reception from Malaysia over Harimau Muda B, however, is largely muted. Harimau Muda play to a near-empty stadium, and the interest from the Malaysian fans and media is almost non-existent, with at times travelling Singaporean fans matching if not outnumbering the home fans. In contrast, Albirex Niigata, a Japanese satellite team playing in Singapore have impressed in their decade-long presence in the S.League with their ability to rally the Japanese expat population for their home games at Jurong East Stadium.

Even for the young Malaysians, (Harimau Muda B are an Under-21 side), the exchange programme could be hardly perceived as fruitful. What purpose does it serve to inflict defeat after defeat upon young developing players who should be carefully nurtured? Can Razip Ismail honestly say that they are learning anything from this season, other than that they are clearly a class below the teams in the league?

I cannot imagine the morale in the Harimau Muda B camp. No young player deserves to be going through what they are going through, it harms confidence. The Courts Young Lions in their difficult campaign last year admittedly had a morale bruising time, and it was clearly taking a toll on everyone on the team.

The arrangements are stuck as they are, a Malaysian team in the S.League and a Singaporean team in the Malaysian Super League, until the end of 2015 according to the terms of the MOU signed by the two nations' football associations in 2011.

With a year and a half to go, let us hope for one of two things; an improved Harimau Muda B side, or a replacement team for next season.