ON AN open-air futsal court on the fifth floor of a warehouse in Tagore Lane, a group of 55-year-old ex-schoolmates gather every second Thursday evening to play futsal.
The love of football is still deep within them even if their bodies do not work as quickly as their football minds. Muscle injuries are common among this lot, with those who forget that they are not teenagers any more the most susceptible.
After the game, they adjourn to a nearby kopi tiam frequented by foreign workers for murtabak and beers. There they discuss the two-hour game that was just played, the goals scored, the air kicks, the deliberate fouls with a hubris that belies their frailties.
The discussion sometimes turns to the woeful state of Singapore football at present. The national football team has not won a single game in the year to date.
Reliving Past Glories
The 55-year-olds remember the heydays of the 1970s and the 1980s when Singapore seriously competed in the Malaysia Cup with the likes of Dollah Kassim, S Rajagopal, Samad Allapitchay, Mat Noh, and Quah Kim Song flying the flag. The Kallang Roar and the old National Stadium are fondly etched in their memories.
They were football crazy in general when they were children and would stay up late to listen to the great Paddy Feeny on the BBC World Service for English football scores on Saturday nights. The legacy of those days is that they remain staunch Liverpool, or Arsenal supporters to this day.
Their passion for the game is something tangible and they get easily frustrated when they see Singapore not being able to compete in any international football arena.
The national team slumped to its lowest-ever FIFA ranking in October at 173. This is out of 211 countries.
This begs the question about whether passion for playing football is still broadly present on the island. While there are many children playing football in the soccer schools that have sprouted all over Singapore, the interest in football arguably does not seem as broad-based as it used to be.
So, what is missing, the folks at the Football Association of Singapore must be wondering.
It should be noted that Singapore parents are the same as they ever were, tending to coerce their children to focus on studies instead of sports. They certainly would prefer their kids to be engineers or doctors rather than professional footballers.
Perhaps the key difference is that in the old days, when the children finished with their studying, they were soon outdoors playing games, especially football. It was a spontaneous transition from indoors study to outdoors play.
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Make It About The Game
It helped that there were many more houses with gardens compared to now, so it was easier to start a game with the neighbourhood children. Now, space for a kickabout comes at a premium.
The concrete jungle that is Singapore makes a patch of grass to kick the ball in harder to find than in the past. In any case, many children these days seem to prefer digital games that are played indoors, Pokemon notwithstanding, rather than actual games that are played outdoors.
Therein lie two of arguably the biggest problems for Singapore football — a lack of spontaneity and a lack of open space that draws children outdoors every day.
Indeed, sports like football have become too organised and commercial. There always seems to be an end-goal or target or desired outcome when a child partakes in a sport, rather than playing just for the fun of it. This has likely contributed to a decline in the passion for games like football at the grassroots level.
Against this backdrop, there is no immediate solution to the malaise in Singapore football. The passion of the 55-year-olds at Tagore Avenue should be the holy grail for Singapore’s football authorities.
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However, the term, football authorities, has become something of an oxymoron in Singapore. There seem to be too many Indian chiefs who do not have passion for football. The default position is to kill passion for football rather than stoke it.
To rebuild Singapore soccer, resources should be ploughed back to the children at the grassroots level. More time and open space should be allocated for spontaneous playing rather than organised sports.
Let children be children for a change, rather than reflect what parents, teachers or authorities want them to be. Then, let that state percolate for a while.
If passion for playing football is revived in Singapore across the younger generation, the benefits to the national football team should eventually manifest. However, it will certainly not happen overnight — in fact, it will take years because Singapore football is at such a low ebb.
On the other hand, if things are left to fester as they have been for the last decade or so, Singapore football will die a slow, painful ignominious death.