Saving the S.League: Confessions of a Tampines Rovers Fan

by Ernest Lee (17A01A)

DISCLAIMER: I support Crystal Palace Football Club.

Call me plastic. The first time I really enjoyed a local game was May 10, 2016. Tampines Rovers played Selangor in an Asian Football Confederation Group Stage match, winning just 1-0. The local team is most famous for signing Jermaine Pennant, ex-Liverpool winger, just this year: the most expensive player for a local club, but still a 70% pay cut from his previous team. Since then, I have considered myself a fan of the team too.

But the nagging voice at the back of my head reminding me I support Crystal Palace first and foremost disturbs me. Why do I feel more connected to a club 10,841 kilometers away, considered to be a second-rate team by many, than a local team I have cheered on multiple times?

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Jermaine Pennant joined Tampines Rovers F.C in January this year. He will be leaving after the season concludes this week, due to salary cuts. (Photo: straitstimes.com)

While the high-profile signing briefly revitalized the scene and secured Rovers as the best local team in the S.League, it was not what drew me into local football. The potentially electric atmosphere, low ticket prices and the tendency for almost twice the number of goals to be scored compared to the average Premier League match are just a few of the reasons. I still maintain attending a live match is something everyone should do at least once, especially to see the thrill of a game live.

I watched the Rovers play against the Young Lions (currently the worst-performing professional team this season), and it still was a unique experience. Not for the Rovers: the Lions fans were roaring, one woman boasting a self-embroIdered “YOUNG LIONS” hat. Retirees sporting Lion jerseys still threw banter whenever a player so much as touched a ball, even if only a quarter of the stadium was occupied. To these weathered fans, watching the weekly match at the home stadium is routine.

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Young Lions fans: the team faced Tampines Rovers, losing 3-1, two Saturdays ago. They remain bottom of the table. (Photo: todayonline.com)

However, Tampines fans were nonexistent: a stark contrast from the first friendly after Pennant’s signing that saw 2,000 spectators. At the game against Selangor, what looked like 50 away fans cheered almost as loud as the Singapore side. (How they brought along two drums is a small mystery.) A genuine pride in their football team existed, even if they identified with the team as non-Selangorese Malaysians or Singaporeans. Where recognizable, I saw only a handful of local jerseys in the reportedly 12,000 crowd, rather than the sea of team colors you see on televised foreign matches. I suspect many members in the crowd went down for a spot of possibly interesting football rather than to support a specific team -I know I did.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of a specific commitment to a club is that geographic locality is insignificant in a country as small as ours. On the other hand, fierce rivalries emerge between teams from cities like London, divided along North-South, states and provinces, or even regions. If there is little non-tautological difference today between a club from Geylang and Balestier, then the concept of a home team is weakened. My neighborhood does not field a team: my inclination towards a Tampines-based team therefore comes from the quality of their match.

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London-based Arsenal F.C faced Singapore Select XI last July, to a crowd of 30,000:  a turnout more than two and a half times larger than the match against historical rival Selangor this year. (Photo: Channel News Asia)

Taken one step further, determining what match and which team to watch based on its predicted quality rather than any affiliation to a local scene seems to explain the popularity of foreign leagues in Singapore. Few Singaporeans play in foreign leagues, but the inverse is clearly untrue. Recent updates of star players like Pennant leaving all but announce that attendance rates will halve. Ask the average person on the street to name their favorite football team: English, Spanish, Germans, Italian and even Brazilian teams get named, despite the odds that they have probably never visited the cities or countries these teams come from.

Cost is not the issue either. Television fees for the English Premier League increased by $5.00/month, bringing subscription costs to nearly $800 a year. In contrast, the cost of a ticket to a local match, with all its atmosphere and live action is $5.00-$6.00 (cheaper by $4.00 if a student) – but look at attendance rates now. One cannot compare viewership rates over the air: the S.League is not consistently broadcasted on television anymore.

Is the problem one of accessibility? Efforts to publicize the S.League, both by teams themselves and by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), enjoy success when they work by increasing the quality of play, not necessarily by mere advertising. Still, attempts to increase the prestige of local teams and matches are inconsistent at best.

Match facts, even basic details like lineups are sometimes missing from the S.League’s own official site. A cursory search on my football mobile app reveals that even Azerbaijan’s football teams’ match stats are tracked. This is possibly an issue of budget, or administrative oversight, which are surprising in light of how the FAS grant up to $1 million to teams for signing players.

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The S.League match centre fails to be updated on occasion, further reducing the visibility of certain games. (Screenshot: S.League Match Centre)

Funding, or the lack thereof, thus seems to be the most straightforward explanation for the floundering of local football. A team that cannot afford to keep players cannot succeed. Rovers’ decision to cut costs meant salaries would be as low as $2,500 monthly: an eighth of Pennant’s current pay, and $1,500 below the average local player’s salary. The FAS will not provide further subsidies, and Rovers’ own decision to cease operating jackpot machines cut off a significant revenue stream.

The self-perpetuating situation therefore necessitates intervention. A league that does not bring in enough money means its teams cannot afford to keep players. Unlike English clubs that primarily benefit from securing televising rights and then ticket sales, the Singaporean fanbase is neither large nor stable enough to secure money from.

Assuming that funds are appropriately managed by teams, enough must be channelled into teams to ensure they are competitive: if not regionally, then at least locally. What can be brought up to par is not nebulous and undefined: common and concrete complaints by players often include shoddy pitches and shifting venues.

Of course, it would be pointless for such funds to serve as a mere tourniquet when no true aid is in sight. The end goal of any official investment in organized sports would be to create a holistic ‘sporting culture’, one that thrives independently of commercial interest.

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The rivalry between Singapore and Selangor on the pitch stretch back lasted for more than 70 years. In 1994, the former pulled out of the Malaysia Cup, marking an end to the derby feud. (Photo: Straits Times)

As constructed as any such culture may be, the intention should not be to replace whatever belonging Singaporean football fans have found with overseas clubs, especially if these connections have been fostered since childhood. It would be unfair to belittle these existing connections. Rather, aspirations for the local scene would be that children grow up watching both their neighborhood team kick off, and the match highlights of the Bundesliga.  

I want my games again. Jermaine Pennant is not likely to return anytime soon, and neither are historical rivalries like that between Singapore and Selangor. But I do want enough to be done so that new histories, new faces and new fans appear in the S.League down the road.

After all, the fact Tampines Rovers plays in Jurong West stadium should have been the biggest joke in the league this year.

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