Will S’pore ever qualify for the World Cup? 82% of S’poreans polled don’t think so
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Will S’pore ever qualify for the World Cup? 82% of S’poreans polled don’t think so

Singaporeans sceptical that nation will ever qualify for World Cup

Defeats by South Korea and Thailand last month are just the tip of the iceberg for Singapore’s national football team, which has been in the doldrums for at least a decade.

The team appears to be in a slump, failing to make it out of the group stage of the regional AFF Championship among Southeast Asian teams since winning it in 2012.

This is just one of many reasons why people were sceptical when in 2019, Minister for Culture, Community & Youth Edwin Tong announced the goal for Singapore to qualify for the 2034 World Cup.

Four years on, that dream is rolling along — but over 80% of people polled believe no amount of goal-setting, or goal-scoring for that matter, can lead Singapore to the World Cup, ever.

At least one observer noted that Singapore needs to achieve a gold medal at the SEA Games or go further in the AFF Championship for there to even be a shot at the World Cup.

In a society where academics is still seen as the safest path to success, a sporting culture is simply not embedded in Singapore, and attitudes will have to change, not only among Singaporeans but also among members of the national set-up.

Over 80% of poll respondents think Singapore won’t qualify for World Cup

Out of 1,851 poll respondents, less than 5% thought Singapore would qualify in fewer than 10 years — the target set by the authorities.

A combined 15% held the view that Singapore might qualify for the World Cup within 10 to 40 years.

Poll results retrieved from Answers.sg.

It makes for a sobering statistic, and the timing of the June poll right after Singapore’s heavy 0-7 loss to South Korea and 1-3 defeat to Thailand may have some part to play in the overwhelming scepticism.

That said, the scepticism has existed for a long time, dating back decades.

Many do not see being a footballer as a viable career

48-year-old local football blogger Ko Po Hui argued that various factors such as the emphasis on the paper chase here aren’t conducive to a strong sporting foundation.

“Many do not see themselves involved in football as a viable career, be it as a player or coach,” he told MS News.

Nicholas Yong, a veteran journalist and football fan, agreed. “The pay isn’t that great,” he said.

If we take some job listings from MyCareersFuture, the average salary for a local Singapore Premier League (SPL) footballer appears to be between S$3,000 and S$7,000.

A coach at an SPL club can expect to earn between S$3,200 and S$4,200, according to a MyCareersFuture job listing by Albirex Singapore, one of SPL’s nine clubs.

Mr Ko also cited a possible self-fulfilling prophecy that exists within Singapore, “probably due to the lack of positives in recent years to inspire us to progress”.

Indeed, with each poor result come brickbats and apparent further proof that Singapore won’t make it in the international football scene.

Qualify for the Asian Cup or World Cup? Forget about it. Win the SEA Games or AFF Championship, and then perhaps we can talk, says Zia-ul Raushan, host of podcast The Final Whistle.

Thai football team wins Gold at the 2015 ASEAN Games. Source: DVB English.

The 35-year-old said there had to be “various checkpoints” for Singapore to clear, one of them being the AFF Championship.

There are competitions like that at the men’s senior level that we need to talk about dominating first, he noted.

He noted that regional rivals such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have progressed much further than Singapore over the past decade.

Mr Raushan also thinks youth football is important as it would serve as a path for younger players to come through and then eventually represent the senior teams.

Labeling them “important markers”, Mr Raushan noted that participating in youth tournaments like under-19 competitions aren’t just about winning, but also about “giving a good account of ourselves”.

He cited the recent AFF U-16 Youth Championship where Singapore lost its first two games to Indonesia and Laos, failing to qualify from the groups. Singapore won its last game against the Philippines, but it was a dead rubber match as the qualified teams had been decided beforehand.

“I think those are markers that we need to clear first before we entertain success for Singapore as a whole.”

Cultural factors not conducive for raising athletes

Everyone whom MS News spoke to were in agreement that several factors beyond the management of football at the highest level contribute to its doldrums.

For example, Mr Raushan thinks as a nation, we “like the highs of sport but we are not willing to embrace it as a part of our life”.

Though Singaporeans are more active than ever, athletes, much less professional sportspeople, are still a minority in this pragmatic nation.

“The academics still play a big part and that means that sport becomes secondary to the conversation,” he said.

At least for football, it has been shown that culture matters more than population — think tiny nations such as Iceland, Slovenia, and Slovakia, all with sports participation permeating everyday life.

Land and resources are given so that anyone, regardless of age or social class, can participate in sports.

Outside of school, children in Singapore are frequently shunted out of public spaces and prevented from playing football due to noise complaints — it does not help that many public spaces are also located within residential areas.

In 2023, for example, the Sembawang Town Council partially cordoned off the void deck of a public housing block in Woodlands after purported noise complaints from residents.

Paradigm shift is needed to qualify for World Cup

Mr Edwin Tong’s goal for Singapore to qualify for the 2034 World Cup is not the first time the Government meted out such an idea.

In 1998, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong introduced Goal 2010 — an objective for the national football team to shoot for the 2010 World Cup.

The goal to qualify for a World Cup has yet to be achieved, but it’s not for a lack of trying.

“There’s been money coming in from [authorities such as] SportSG or Unleash The Roar (UTR) to send promising kids on scholarships overseas,” Mr Raushan noted.

However, there also needs to be a paradigm shift to make becoming an athlete more viable for Singaporeans.

“Singaporeans are still very practical,” Mr Yong added. “When an SPL player is paid peanuts, why would parents encourage their kids to become footballers?”

Even sprint star Shanti Pereira has admitted in the past that she did not use to think of herself as an athlete on a 24/7 basis, having focused primarily on her accounting degree at Singapore Management University.

But she told The Straits Times (ST) that her partnership with her coach since 2020 has changed her mindset, and with that, came the accolades.

Shanti Pereira (middle) at the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games. Source: CNA on Facebook.

Before she teamed up with Portuguese coach Luis Cunha, she had one SEA Games gold medal in 2015.

Now, Ms Pereira is not only going to the Paris Olympics — she also owns multiple gold medals at Asian championships and was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame this year.

That shift freed a fledging talent struggling to burst out of its shackles, and transformed her into a remarkable athlete.

Surely, Ms Pereira’s example should spark a conversation about how it’s okay for more Singaporeans to embrace the athlete’s mindset, perhaps over even academics.

“If the idea of being an athlete is made more viable, that will signal a cultural shift in the mindset of Singaporeans, and this would have a knock-on effect not just for athletes who compete and represent the flag but also in terms of the support that’s given out to them,” Mr Raushan said.

Administration, bureaucracy are also barriers

Mr Raushan pinpointed a stagnation that appeared to have set in among decision-makers at the top of the footballing body. He said:

I think when we were strong, we should have done a lot to continue our progress.

Singapore had instead allowed regional rivals to creep up on it, and now get ahead — leading to present day where Cambodia and Laos, traditionally minnows, can defeat us in youth competitions.

And that’s not even considering the progress our fiercest rivals Malaysia and Indonesia have made.

Both these countries qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup for the first time since 2007 when they were co-hosts.

“We had programmes in the past like Goal 2010 and the 2010 to 2015 FAS Strategic Plan with an aim to uplift our footballing standard, but the poor execution of these well-intended programs eventually led to the failure of the above-mentioned blueprints,” Mr Ko said.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s followed the local scene that there are several other obstacles that players have, not least one being National Service (NS).

In Europe, many under-17 players sign a scholarship at a professional club, and often, it is at 19 years old that the player and the club will have a sit-down to decide their future.

For Singaporean males — even those who hold dual citizenship — their path leads to only one future: NS.

Source: Josephine Teo on Facebook

“NS is a major disruption to their careers, and getting deferment — even if you end up at a top European club — is very, very difficult,” Mr Yong said. “No club will accept a footballer taking a two-year break, and even if they did, other players will have taken his spot by the time he comes back.”

That barrier has meant many a talented player has either fallen behind, or are forced to quit their dream as they have spent their most crucial development years in NS instead of furthering their skills with proper coaching and resources.

This is not an argument against NS, but we must not forget that being an athlete means having everything tailored to that end. Yes, enlistment does not provide that.

But Mr Raushan argued that ultimately, whether a kid succeeds as an athlete has much to do with not only the ecosystem around them, but also the intrinsic motivation to perform at their best.

Current generation has to shape vision for future

With initiatives like UTR only set to bear fruit in the coming years, Mr Raushan noted that the players in the current national set-up now have a large part to play in inspiring the generation to come.

“Right now, the generation that needs to take [Singapore football] forward is a ‘bite the bullet’ generation, where the runway is short to succeed,” he said.

“If there are a few athletes able to take a risk and do something which is not just for themselves and their careers, but for the bigger purpose, to inspire the next generation to show that it is possible, I think that will signal a shift in mindset as well.”

He cited players like Jacob Mahler and brothers Ryhan and Haryhs Stewart as examples of those who have taken the step up from youth teams to the national team.

All three now have a career overseas as professional footballers and are still in their early 20s, which gives them at least 10 years to contribute to the national team.

“This generation is so, so important,” Mr Raushan emphasised.

Distractions compared to previous generations

But for every Mahler, there are many more players who fail to make the mark and are forced to find a second job to support themselves and their family.

“I do think we live in a day and age where there are different problems compared to 10 to 20 years ago,” Mr Raushan said, noting that players like Noh Alam Shah were fully dedicated to the national team and certainly played like it.

Source: Football Association of Singapore

He was well-known for his passion on the football field, although he had his share of violent bust-ups too.

The existence of social media has meant that players often double as influencers alongside their footballing career.

“I think we live in a day and age where there is a need for immediate gratification… you post something online, you start counting the likes and get a dopamine hit,” he noted. “I feel that idea has kind of seeped into sports, where you feel you put in one, two, three months of good training and you want to reap the rewards.”

“But I don’t think sport works like that. I think you have to constantly wake up every day and be at the top of your game if you want to achieve something.”

National players, in this day and age, also often find themselves being social media ambassadors. That means for example, when a 16-year-old receives an opportunity to train in Spain under the UTR project, they’re also posting about their time there.

“So there needs to be more education, in terms of guiding them to make them understand why it’s not about just getting to the training camp when you’re 16, but it’s about learning from that, extracting that and bringing something back,” Mr Raushan said.

If players don’t succeed as footballers, they may see content creation as a backup — which one might argue dilutes the hunger to play as well as they can for the nation.

Athletes need support in terms of money and stability

To make having a footballing career worthwhile, Mr Raushan believes the SPL has to go beyond a single privatised team and expand so that more can remain in the football scene.

With Lion City Sailors the sole privatised team in the SPL, budgets are low among the other teams, with much of it going to foreign players.

The current lack of stability for players and coaches alike — many are given just an 11-month contract — is yet another barrier for the national team.

Beyond privatisation, Mr Raushan believes increasing job stability has to be more important — starting from the association.

“If they can all come together and provide a better framework, then the job security aspect is also addressed,” he said.

“And then I think all in all, job security, better money, it then becomes football becomes a much more viable career for anyone and parents will be more inclined to push their children on to build a career out of it.”

Also read: Commentary: China’s football team (unwittingly) revives Singapore football

Commentary: China’s football team (unwittingly) revives Singapore football

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Featured image adapted from Football Association of Singapore on Facebook.

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