SIX MEN WHO CAN SAVE SINGAPORE FOOTBALL

Photo: FAS

Running football is more than just passion and know-how about the sport. It is also about having the business savvy to turn it into a financial success and six men in the local game have the expertise. Will they step forward and nurse it back to health?

SOMETIME BEFORE March next year, Singapore football will arrive at a crossroad. For the first time since 1968 the Football Association of Singapore will hold elections for office bearers of its Council.

This is to comply with world football governing body FIFA statutes that member association must “manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties”.

The announcement by the FAS was made late last month and it created a buzz in the football fraternity.

Are elections the way to go?

For almost five decades the government ministry that oversees sports has been appointing the president and the council members of the FAS. In the earlier years it was the Minister for Social Affairs, and today it is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

But the way forward is fraught with uncertainties. There is a big question mark whether the football community has enough qualified candidates who can run their sport after nearly five decades of management by those not of their choosing.

It is a culture shock because an election is about choice. It is about voting for a set of candidates from a field of more than one. And the hard question is this: How many with the right credentials are out there who will step forward to run for office?

Running football is not all about passion and understanding how the sport ticks, although those are essentials. Today’s game also requires tens of million to run it successfully and commercial, financial and management expertise is also required. There are few in the football fraternity who qualify and except for Balestier chairman S Thavaneson, none of them are in the present FAS Council.

The men who could run Singapore football

At the top of the list is Tampines chairmen Teo Hock Seng, whose links with football go back to 1975 when he was president of Farrer Park United. Under his leadership Tampines won the S-League five times and the Singapore Cup thrice.

Teo is the most successful club head still in service and is an equally successful businessman who runs the Komoco group of companies. He is also chairman of Singapore GP.

Others are Hougang’s Bill Ng, Thavaneson, Geylang’s Leong Kok Fann and John Yap, chairman of former S-League club Gombak United, all of whom either manage or are part of thriving businesses. They have commercial instincts that can help Singapore football financially in the longer term.

Another name that should be brought back to the game is Steven Tan, who served as FAS executive secretary in the heydays of Singapore’s lucrative run in the Malaysia Cup from 1978 to 1993.

These are men who have ideas that could steer Singapore football out of the quagmire of falling playing standards and fan apathy in local football. They may not share the same solutions in tackling the problems plaguing the game but they do have a common destination in where they want football to head. The first stop in that direction is to bring crowds back to the S-League.

They have a choice to put together separate teams to stand for elections next March, but the ideal is that they sit down to iron out their differences and find a common starting point. There is good reason for these men to work together because cast the net beyond them and there is a dearth in institutional knowledge in what made football tick in the 1970s to 1990s and why it is ailing now. And they need to impart what they know to the next generation of leaders.

Bringing the fans back

The fundamentals of success in football are the same in any age and at any place, but the most basic is the connection with fans, especially with the grassroots.

Singapore had a thriving local amateur and semi-professional league in the 1970s and 80s, and the common excuse for dwindling attendances in the last 15 years is the pervasive access to the Internet and other media platforms. It doesn’t stand to reason because many countries big and small have thriving local leagues despite access to similar luxuries.

The vital connection

The elections next March is an opportunity for those with a stake in football and want it nursed back to health. But whether they stand as a single group or separately, it would be folly to exclude a government link in their teams. The appointment of Serangoon Gardens MP Lenny Rodrigo to head the FAS in 1968 came about because the association was struggling to recover from bankruptcy.

His successors and council members, especially lawyer N Ganesan, were also ministerial appointees and they were instrumental in bringing the FAS back to financial health. Today a substantial amount of the association’s $10 million budget come from government funding or state-owned Singapore Pools. It would be financial suicide for the game if the authorities are suddenly cut out as stakeholders.

There is another indispensable truth. The Government through Sport Singapore have invested a significant amount of financial and human capital in sports science and management expertise. These are assets the FAS needs if it is to make any headway on the field and running the game. Of all the sports in Singapore, football is in dire need of them because it has the biggest following and participation rate between both genders. It is also the one sport that can unify an entire country.

Time is running out

There is only five months to go before the elections for a new FAS president and Council members. That’s precious little time to form a quality team with a viable vision for Singapore football. But this should not in any way disqualify the present council members from standing for office. They could join other teams or organise their own groups.

But it would be a sad day in Singapore football if no one steps forward because this is a golden opportunity to change the course of a game that has been heading south for far too long.