SOCCER-MAD Singaporeans may be forgiven for singing “Ole! Ole!” these days and hoping more of it will ring out at their National Stadium in future.
For 10 years, interest in football has steadily declined since Singapore pulled out of the Malaysia Cup to end the ignominy of having to play its national side against another country’s state teams year after year.
It launched its own S-League in 1994 with a dozen sponsored teams, and threw in a lot of money into recruiting foreign players with no success in pulling in the crowds.
For a decade, many young Singaporeans either lost their taste for soccer or turned to the English Premier League on television.
Even the top local matches failed to draw more than 5,000 spectators. Gone were the huge 65,000-strong crowds that used to create the Mexican waves at a Singapore battle against Selangor or Pahang.
With improving ties, the two neighbouring countries are set to renew their historical football rivalry in a format different from the Malaysia Cup.
This story is not just about football. If both nations can pull it off, the getting-back together will have an impact that will echo far beyond the football field.
It can be a powerful way to cement friendship between Malaysians and Singaporeans – and perhaps with others.
The mood is just right, unlike 10 years ago. Apart from Singapore’s decision to stop taking part in the tournament as “a state” in Malaysia, there was conflict over matters of money, bribery and crowd control.
The republic had always been sensitive to being regarded as a “small brother” that needed to be subservient to the federation of which it was once a member state.
Its participation in the Malaysia Cup, however popular it was to die-hard soccer fans, was never considered a permanent thing.
Actually, during much of the time, Singapore’s football standards had been comparable to – but never consistently higher than – Malaysia’s top state sides. It didn’t want to be stuck at the Malaysia Cup level with no potential for regional, if not global, contests.
On Malaysia’s side, some lower-ranking states unhappily saw Singapore’s inclusion as an obstacle against their chances of winning.
Last week, Football Association of Singapore president Mah Bow Tan and Football Association of Malaysia chief Tengku Mahkota Abdullah of Pahang met here and agreed to re-establish ties.
The new Cup format will be based on a multiple-level competition without affecting each other’s league commitments.
It will kick off next year with a “Champion of Champions” tournament, pitching the league and cup winners of both sides against each other on a home-and-away format.
The two soccer leaders also agreed to reinstate the Singapore-Malaysia International Series, which took a break last year due to the SARS outbreak.
In addition, an annual carnival between national age-group teams and clubs of both countries will be organised. Both events will take place this year.
But they want a bigger fish, bringing back a restructured Malaysia Cup to appeal to their fans.
Both sides agreed in principle to have a joint Singapore-Malaysia league in the near future, Mah said. “We’re still thrashing out ideas with regard to finance, accommodating our two calendars and sponsorship.”
Added Tengku Abdullah: “It may or may not happen, but if it does it will involve only club sides.”
The rapprochement is a big benefit for soccer fans. It will raise revenue and crowd interest as well as standards of the game.
The way Singapore handled this sport has been revealing.
The older People’s Action Party leadership had neither understood nor given much priority to sports beyond its contribution to public health and exercise.
But the younger ministers under Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had begun to see it having a higher value of bonding the people – and that means winning medals.
When the city-state pulled out of the Malaysia Cup, all it wanted was to run its own tournament to keep the fans happy.
That decision caused a furore among many fans who wanted football to be separated from politics. As long as people liked it, Singapore should have continued, they cried.
But those who were sensitive to the state of Singapore-Malaysia relations at the time saw the inevitability of change.
The soccer officials, now under a Cabinet minister, had worked hard to build the league, raised sponsorships, attracted – and paid well – players from abroad (until the recent recession brought salaries down).
The league succeeded in enlarging the pool of local semi-professional players and instituted practical plans to train youngsters, but there was no appreciable improvement to the national side.
From the beginning, Singapore officials had often spoken of attracting the fans with higher levels of professional skill.
On hindsight, they learned that fans go to a match to see their team beat its rival, not really to admire good play. For the officials, it was live-and-learn time.
With only a population of four million and a short history, Singaporeans have not developed a sense of loyalty to their soccer teams.
Many of the S-League teams are named (taking after Britain) according to places, like Tampenis, Geylang or Pasir Panjang. But cities like Liverpool and Manchester have existed for a long time, with large populations that are loyal to them, like Malaysian supporters to their home states.
In Singapore, few people in Woodlands, for instance, support the team from Woodlands.
If there was no loyalty, there couldn’t be much rivalry either. And rivalry was what brought out the crowds when Singapore played the top Malaysian teams.
Until Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over last November, friction had made any mending of ties impossible. The poor decade-long football relations are not what either side really wants.
All this is injecting new life into the most popular sport in both Malaysia and Singapore at an opportune time.
The recession of the past couple of years has closed down three clubs here, reducing the number of S-League teams from 12 to nine. It has teams from China (Sinchi FC) and Japan (Albirex Niigata).
Officials are hopeful that it may one day attract other top neighbouring teams to make it a truly regional league tournament.