When it comes to sports, football holds a special place in Singaporean hearts.

Our newspapers and online publications cover the sport extensively, with dedicated sections and pages just for it. Not to mention how the buzz on the latest matches and upcoming fixtures can be heard everywhere from a downtown pub to a heartland kopitiam.

Yet, the majority of these conversations are about teams and tournaments overseas. For some reason, not many of us are keen on keeping up with football on our shores, as much as we love to watch and talk about the sport.

Hopefully, that might change in the future.

When Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong announced a new project last month to give young football athletes more opportunities to train and turn professional, it was met with a flurry of excitement in the papers.

Called “Unleash The Roar”, it involves government agencies including MCCY and the Ministry of Education as well as SportSG and the Football Association of Singapore.

Set to unfold in phases and based on eight pillars, Unleash The Roar will revamp football CCAs starting from primary schools. Most notably, it will create a standardised curriculum to be taught across the nation. There will also be support for eligible student-athletes to allow them to keep training and competing while fulfilling their NS obligations.

Minister Tong also stated that the goal of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup is an ‘aspirational’ one and that achievement (or not) of this goal will not measure the success of Unleash The Roar.

“If we can grow an ecosystem, if we can get fans coming to watch the game, parents very interested, if we can raise the level of our game, these are very, very good indicators to say that we have actually achieved substantial improvements in our pathway towards this project in football,” he said.

Not a roar, but a whine

Football Singapore
Image Source : Shutterstock / ZDL

But for all the positive coverage in the news, many Singaporeans still couldn’t help but express apprehension about the announcement. Many remained critical about FAS and the state of Singaporean football.

On Reddit, some users faulted the decision to focus on international competitions instead of local ones.

User ningoverhung said: “Singapore has a tendency to aim for the sky and fail miserably before retooling and aiming high again for no good reason. First it was 2010 now it’s 2034? FAS needs to have a good look at itself and fix what’s wrong within itself first (our Singapore Premier League) before even looking at international competitions”

Some labelled local football as a lost cause.

User sfushimi commented: “Can we stop wasting money on the underachieving black hole that is Singapore football?”

Others wondered why the focus on football when national teams in other sports were doing well with barely the same level of support.

Another redditor, avandleather, said: “Just admit that Singapore will never reach stardom in the international competitive sports scene. We are way behind Olympic powerhouses and it would literally be a better investment to switch the expenditure to energy, social welfare, education…”

However, there were those who spoke up in support, albeit in the minority.

User redwithin said: “I grew up watching us play in and win the Malaysia Cup… When the S-League started I attended games when I could. I queued hours for tickets for the Tiger Cup finals. My lasting memory of the Singapore national football team is cheering wildly in the National Stadium (mostly empty, maybe 10k attendance) in the rain when we equalised to make it 1-1 against Kuwait, then an Asian powerhouse, in a WC qualifier. That was in 2001…”

“…At least now the focus is on starting young, and on youth. On making football more accessible to our schoolchildren. Will it work? Probably not. But even if it doesn’t, at least a generation of children would have been raised with a more thoughtful approach to football. At least we would have equipped teachers and coaches with the skills to properly train young footballers. And maybe, if this generation of parents still thinks it’s nuts for their kids to want to find a career in football, maybe the next generation will be a bit more open to it.”

Scepticism not unwarranted

Football Singapore
Amy Recha Pristifana Samion in action at the 2015 SEA Games. Image Source : Shutterstock / feelphoto

These reactions are not surprising, considering what happened in the past.

In 1998, then-PM Goh Chok Tong announced Goal 2010 in his National Day rally speech. The objective was to qualify for the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa.

Motivated by France’s 1998 World Cup victory, he hoped to naturalise foreign talent to help Singapore make it to the Finals. France’s star player at the time, Zinedine Zidane, won the Cup with France despite being of Algerian descent. Other members of the French national team were also born outside France, which prompted then-PM Goh to suggest the same method.

However, that did not come to be, and more than 10 years later, Singapore was knocked out in the third round of the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers in the group stages.

As of the time of this writing, Singapore ranks 158 out of 210 nations in the world in the FIFA World Rankings.

The current state of the SPL, formerly known as the S-League provides no silver lining either.

Ask yourself: How many teams are there in the SPL? Can you name them? Did you know that the SPL is ongoing right now?

Football Singapore - Young Lions
Geylang International in action against the Young Lions in a 2018 SPL game. Image Source : Shutterstock / Tony Tofani

Despite efforts, local support remains low. The stands were often empty even before Covid happened. When I talk to football fans, it would inevitably be about overseas leagues, not ours. Many didn’t even know the S-League had rebranded to be called the SPL until I told them about it.

Taking into account all these factors, it’s understandable that Singaporeans remain pessimistic about this new project: Merely remembering what happened in the past and focusing on our present prevents us from hoping for the best when thinking about the future.

We should still give it a chance

I’m not old enough to have experienced the Kallang Roar myself. But I’ve heard stories of it from my parents and older friends. There’s even a movie made about it starring Lim Kay Siu! Those times when the old National Stadium would be packed to the gills, 55,000 fans chanting and singing and, yes, roaring, our Lions on as we took on all comers.

The golden years of Singapore football in the 70s and 80s morphed into the heady dreams of the 90s and our 1994 Dream Team winning the Malaysia Cup. Yes, we cheered on the stars on the pitch and they (from Quah Kim Song to Fandi Ahmad and V Sundramoorthy to Abbas Saad and Lim Tong Hai) slalomed their way into our hearts.

But it is the support of the fans, both on and off the stands, that is also part of football, especially on the national and international stage. How can we expect Unleash The Roar (or anything, for that matter) to succeed when our responses are about how it is pointless and doomed to fail?

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Let’s not mince words. The state of the local football scene leaves much to be desired. With so many odds against it, a humongous amount of effort and change is required to improve it. And it will also need time.

Unleash The Roar is not a magic bullet that will immediately take Singapore football out of the doldrums. But it does set a precursor for a better future.

Even if we don’t see any immediate results, it can prompt a shift in mindset among aspiring footballers and their families. These increased opportunities will help more fulfil their dreams. And young players displaying their passion on the pitch might convince their loved ones that there can be a future for them in the sport.

Football Singapore - 2022 World Cup
Singapore in action against Yemen in 2018 at Kallang Stadium for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Image Source : Shutterstock / Tony Tofani

Professional or amateur, child or adult, no one goes out on the pitch to play badly. What more if they represent a team, or don a jersey as a Lion.

The same can be said for the youth teams. Many children and teenagers harbour aspirations of playing football professionally. Why else would they join football as a CCA or sign up for training classes or go for trials with professional teams?

Unleash The Roar gives them a better chance to do that.Yet if all we do is disparage and discourage, our next generation of sportsmen and sportswomen might be dissuaded from living up to their full potential.

Football Singapore
Image Source : Shutterstock / imtmphoto

Dreamers aim high. So that even if we fall short, it may still be higher than if we’d aimed low and hit our target. Even if it seems all too far-fetched to us, the least we could do is lend our support, or failing that, hold our peace.

I believe that Unleash the Roar is a step in the right direction. (Ex-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger agrees with me!) It sets the tone for the winds of change to make Singapore football (dare I say it) great again.

While we can’t control the outcome of this project, we can keep rooting for our young ones to develop their skills and chase their dreams, or simply play for the love of the game.

We may very well not qualify for the 2034 World Cup. However, we can use this initiative to nurture a greater love and passion for the Beautiful Game in Singapore. That builds a solid foundation for an even brighter future.

And that would be a goal worth chasing for.

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