While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends during recess either discussing transfer rumours or play football in the school field (even though I was never any good). However, also though there was much talk on football, it was mostly centred on European Leagues, especially the English Premier League. There was barely any serious conversation on the local league (then known as the S. League). Instead, the S. League and then later the revamped Singapore Premier League (SPL) is often ridiculed with low attendances and low live telecast viewership despite free streaming.
Today, the league is facing a severe crisis. The last time a local Singaporean club had won the title was in 2014. Since then foreign-based clubs, DPMM and Albirex Nigata’s Singaporean satellite team, have won the title. Warriors FC, who were the last local team to win the title and are the league’s most successful team with 9 championships, was embroiled in controversy after not paying player and staff salaries of more than S$350,000. The Football Association of Singapore has recently asked Warriors FC to sit out the 2020 season of the SPL, but this request was rejected by the club.
If Warriors FC were to be forced to sit out the season, the number of clubs would reduce to 8 teams with only 6 local teams – one of which is the national youth team that is ineligible for continental competition. If the club were to be disbanded due to financial issues, they would join the ranks of former clubs like Tanjong Pagar United FC, Gombak United FC and Woodlands Wellington FC. The loss of a club not only shrinks the national pool of players but also leads to many footballers losing their steady flow of income. The SPL is Singapore’s only professional sports league but yet is plagued by financial insecurities. There have been no new local entrants to the league since 2014, and there haven’t been any serious attempts by the Football Association to increase that number.
One route the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) can take to ensure the survival of the League is to completely restructure the League’s format. The creation of a franchise league set up akin to that of Major League Soccer and that of the Indian Super League may be what the Singapore League needs. Clubs on their own do not possess sufficient financial muscle. However, if they band together under the FAS, they can better share their resources more effectively.
For a franchise football league to work, however, some things need to be either changed or completely eliminated from the current league setup. Foreign Leagues do not value add the League if foreign players if they cannot be naturalized. The Foreign player quota should be increased, and only international players of sufficient quality and stature should be sought after. Much like the MLS system, the FAS should assist in contributing to the wages of Marquee players. Having a salary cap would also prevent clubs from overspending their budget.
A radical attempt may be what is necessary to rekindle interest in the Sport. Singaporeans used to passionately support the national team, and when the S.league first started in 1996, thousands came to support their local clubs.