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The Heck Is: The Singapore Premier League?

Around this time of the year, Singapore’s only professional football league, the Singapore Premier League (SPL) would usually be well underway.  However, with the Covid-19 pandemic worsening on our shores in recent weeks, the league has since been suspended and we thought we might just go through what this competition is, was, and what could have been.

Singapore is well-known for being a country of football-loving fans. Ask anyone on the streets and the odds of that person having watched or played the beautiful game in some capacity are pretty high. But unfortunately, most locals’ passion for football have been mainly restricted to the European game or the commercialised English Premier League (EPL) in particular. Football fans in Singapore would often have no trouble comfortably rattling off the names of players plying their trade in the English top-flight, ranging from established stars such as Sadio Mane to washed-up journeymen like Danny Drinkwater. But these very same fans would find themselves struggling to name even a few of our local league’s best players.

Perhaps it is this general apathy towards the Singapore league coupled with the overwhelming enthusiasm towards the EPL that led to our local football authorities rebranding the competition as the SPL in 2018 in hope of drawing more eyeballs. Together with the unveiling of a new logo that bore striking resemblance to the EPL’s version, the hope was that the struggling league could tap on the popularity of its more affluent counterpart and attract more new fans. But despite the baby steps of progress made since the league’s rebranding, it continues to struggle with low attendances and lack of media attention. Thus, we aim to shed more light on this much-maligned local league and hopefully draw more bums to stadium seats after the Covid-19 situation settles down. 

So, what exactly is the Singapore Premier League? Founded in 1996, it was previously known as the S.League and started with eight founding clubs. In its heydays, the S.League regularly attracted big crowds to stadiums all over the country and a record crowd of 30,000 even showed up for the championship playoff final in its inaugural season. This remains the record attendance for the league even till today. 

Top Quality Players

Singapore Premier League: Daniel Bennett
Daniel Bennett (in black), the record holder for appearances in the national team, playing for Tampines Rovers

Despite the constant mumblings on the ground about the general lack of quality, there have still been a myriad of top players who have graced the league in the past. These included the likes of two Iranian internationals who went on to play in the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Hamid Reza Estili & Mohammad Khakpour. The influx of top Thai players in the early 2000s such as Therdsak Chaiman, Kiatisuk Senamuang and Sutee Suksomkit also served to significantly boost the quality of the league. And in recent years, our football pitches have continued to be graced by foreign stars, with the most notable one being former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant when he turned out for Tampines Rovers in 2016. 

Moving away from foreign players, the SPL has also been responsible for producing generations after generations of top-quality Singaporean internationals who have served the national team well. The likes of Noh Alam Shah and Indra Sahdan were stalwarts for the Singapore national team back in their prime, and they also plundered more than a hundred goals during their time in the SPL. Many local players have also been able to build on their performances in the league to secure much more lucrative contracts overseas. As of this year, there are 10 Singaporean players based abroad — namely in Norway, Thailand and Malaysia. 

A Different League Today

Singapore Premier League: Mohd Noor Ali
Head Coach for Geylang International FC Mohd Noor Ali, one of the clubs who was present during the heyday of the S.League and remains in the Singapore Premier League

The SPL today is very different from how it was like when it was first launched amidst much fanfare in 1996. With rules changes designating local clubs to field at least 3 local under-23 players in their starting line-up, there has been a shift towards a more youth-centric competition. Younger players have been forced to step up much earlier, and it is not a common sight to see scrawny youngsters barely out of their teens going head to head with experienced professionals. With a keen eye being placed on the future, the current overall quality of the league has suffered as a result. Veteran players as well as coaches have also openly voiced their displeasure regarding how young players have been handed out spots in the first team on a silver spoon instead of having to fight for them like how it used to be. 

Financially, challenges remain for the league, with clubs still heavily reliant on subsidies provided from the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) for their daily operations. Looking for alternative revenue streams and new sponsorships have continued to be a struggle for most clubs. And one of the founding clubs of the SPL, Warriors FC was even forced to sit out the current season due to financial mismanagement. It certainly speaks volumes about the overall fragility of the league when one of the country’s most storied clubs could simply go out of business just like that. 

Hopes for the Future

Singapore Premier League: Lion City Sailors
Lion City Sailors FC (formerly Home United FC) represents a first in the league in privatisation for local clubs.

However, despite the problems, there are signs that there is light at the end of the proverbial dark tunnel. The focus on youth has begun to reap rewards, with many young stars, including the likes of Zikos Chua, Farhan Zulkifli and Daniel Goh, all bursting onto the scene in the past two years. With the recent headline-grabbing privatisation of Home United FC (now known as Lion City Sailors FC), it has breathed new life into the beleaguered 25-year-old league. There is hope that if the Sailors were proven a success, other investors could similarly be attracted and more clubs would eventually follow down the same route of privatisation. With greater commercialisation and more money pumped in, this would in turn boost the overall professionalism of the league both on and off the pitch.   

When then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong officially launched the S.League to a 50,000-strong crowd back in 1996, no one would have possibly predicted the struggles that the league would face in the coming years. But 25 years on, despite the countless challenges, the SPL is still here, albeit barely keeping afloat. And it continues to serve as a fertile breeding ground in producing our national footballers through providing them with a platform to play at a high level. Thus, the onus would be on the various stakeholders in our community to come together and bring the league back to its glory days. If that is achieved, the general apathy surrounding the league would surely disappear and maybe then the question of “The Heck Is: The Singapore Premier League” will no longer ever pop up in our minds.                 

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Zaixiang Pan

A massive fan of the game played between one ball and 22 men. But otherwise just another ordinary chap trying to figure out life.

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