Singapore football must build a star overseas to create a brighter 2018
After the annus horribilis that was 2017, the only way is up for Singapore football.
So with the New Year upon us, here are five hopeful wishes for the local game in 2018.
1. Build a star overseas
Fandi Ahmad swung his left boot, the ball flashed past Walter Zenga and a superstar was born. The Singaporean's goal against Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup for Groningen in 1983 elevated the sport's status. There's no national service quite like it. A foreign trailblazer in a superior league works wonders for morale and provides an antidote to all that kiasuism.
Like Fandi, Daniel Bennett's spell at Wrexham and Safuwan Baharudin's stint at Melbourne City stimulated interest in Singapore football. They were not just local names, but local names in stronger foreign leagues.
The Thais enjoyed a similar impact when they succeeded in the (then) superior S.League in the late 1990s.
An overseas star can work wonders at home and Singapore could use some good news from abroad right now. No one is more aware of the benefits of a successful overseas stint than Fandi, who's sending his boys, Irfan, 20, and Ikhsan, 18, for trials at Leeds United. The Fandi brothers have reportedly received offers from domestic and regional clubs, but they are setting their sights higher.
Like Joseph Schooling swimming with the world's best in Texas, the thought of a Singaporean athlete regularly competing at a higher level captures the imagination. It is the kind of uplifting narrative that sustains public interest. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Fandi's history repeated itself and went one better in 2018? Two Fandis in Europe for the price of one is the kind of eye-catching proposition that Singaporeans can really get behind.
2. Could Singaporeans actually win some Singaporean trophies?
The first time made the S.League a quirky pub quiz question. The second time made the league a bit of a joke. But a third time would be mortifying. So if it's not too much trouble, perhaps a Singaporean club might win one of the four Singaporean trophies on offer in 2018?
Albirex Niigata were certainly not the first club to win a domestic trophy in a foreign country back in 2016. But no other overseas side has ever won a quadruple, let alone two quadruples in a row. Should the Japanese club pull off a hat trick, they'll skip away with the match ball and whatever's left of Singapore's dignity.
Albirex's impeccable professionalism cannot make a mockery of the S.League's perceived lack of competition for a third time. But the new rules may not help the local cause. When the new season kicks off, the competition could be stuck with another unwanted first -- a league with four different sets of rules.
Local clubs must include six under-23s (and start three every match) and sign only two foreigners. The Young Lions must all be under-22s. Most of Albirex's players must be under 23, but will be predominately Japanese, obviously, and DPMM Brunei can include four foreigners. The Brunei boys may also not have any age restrictions.
The S.League's laudable emphasis on youth is farsighted, but the kids could toil against Albirex's vast talent pool and Brunei's older players. And that won't be all right for the S.League. A Singaporean trophy needs to be raised by Singaporean hands to prove that the football talent is not entirely foreign.
3. Keep the best of the rest
Funding cuts, and an increased emphasis on youth development, were always going to put pressure on the S.League's older pros. An occasional cull is inevitable in any professional competition, but a sizeable exodus can damage public interest.
Young hopefuls like the Fandi brothers should chance their arm elsewhere, but established veterans must be encouraged to stay, wherever possible, to maintain that fragile connection between footballer and fan. Home United coach Aidil Sharin has already acknowledged the daunting task of replacing three crowd favourites. Hassan Sunny, Singapore's No.1 keeper, has rejoined Thai club Army United. Croatian striker Stipe Plazibat is also headed to Thailand, joining Bangkok Glass, while Lions vice-captain, Hariss Harun, has returned to parent club Johor Darul Ta'zim. And three could become four, with Faris Ramli rumoured to be on the verge of signing with Malaysia Super League (MSL) side, PKNS FC, although Shahril Ishak's move from Warriors FC will ease the pain.
In a league light on sporting luminaries, those familiar faces will be missed. The same could be said for Shahdan Sulaiman (Melaka United), Safuwan Baharudin (Pahang) and Madhu Mohana (Negeri Sembilan), a trio of established Lions.
Despite losing Shahdan, Tampines Rovers have at least retained stalwarts Khairul Amri, Daniel Bennett, Fahrudin Mustafic, Fazrul Nawaz and Irwan Shah, as well as bringing back former Stag Jordan Webb. Tampines have managed to keep the best of the rest. With a bit of luck, other clubs will follow suit.
4. Take off the handbrake, Lions
Under coach V. Sundramoorthy, Singapore have played 21 times, won two, drawn five and lost the other 14. More pertinently, the Lions haven't won a game since Nov. 2016 and their embarrassing FIFA rankings are always a source of amusement among the anti-establishment critics. So a victory, any victory, is of paramount importance in 2018.
Sundram's stifling tactics often exasperate, but the affable, positive coach at Jurong FC in the late 90s -- and a MSL winner with LionsXII in 2013 -- appears to be struggling with the systemic failings he inherited. The Lions have parked the bus more times than a Greyhound coach driver, but Sundram can hardly be blamed for the youth production line grinding to a halt. Michel Sablon's innovations are yet to bear fruit and the Football Association of Singapore's technical director will be under pressure to produce a young cub or two in 2018. In the meantime, Sundram will continue to work with depleted playing stocks.
That said, the handbrake can be taken off once the Lions step over the halfway line. Thanks to the S.League's proposed changes, the Lions should be younger and fitter by the time the Suzuki Cup comes around in November. Perhaps a smidgeon of flair will be acquired along the way. In 2017, Singapore games were something of a buzzkill. Hopefully, they'll be more Buzz Lightyear in 2018. They can't always fly, but let's see them falling with style.
5. Discuss elephant in dressing room
"The Singaporean national team competed in some pre-World Cup qualifying matches in the National Stadium. Not a single player in the starting XI was Chinese." The extract comes from my 2001 book Notes From an Even Smaller Island, and 17 years on, little has changed.
Getting 70 percent of the population accurately represented in the S.League -- or even represented at all in the national team -- is a less common refrain. And it's not a realistic, short-term ambition either, not even on a New Year's wish-list.
But perhaps 2018 could be the year when the disproportionate representation of Singapore's major races in professional football is discussed openly, maturely and rationally in the hope of deepening the talent pool.
It is easy to criticise the lads already on the field. The hard part is convincing others to join them. That's the overriding challenge for Singapore football in 2018 and a noble one worth pursuing.
Singapore-based Neil Humphreys is an award-winning British author and football writer whose latest book, Rich Kill Poor Kill, is out now.