Curry puffs and circuses

Posted on July 12, 2011

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Football is full of convenient fictions. You know, players and managers and their “it’s not about the money”. FIFA and their “For the good of the game”. One narrative that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will be trying to spin over the next few weeks is that the Singapore Lions’ entry into the Malaysian league is aimed at player development.

They will point to how the Young Lions supposedly benefited from the flying elbows, flashing studs and hostile treatment from fans they received when they participated in the Malaysian FA Cup in 2006. They will say the long journeys foster team bonding, the tough away days at the Shah Alam, Likas and Darulmakmur stadiums stiffen backbones and marvel at how the passion on the terraces will be reflected in the players’ performances.

Sounds great. The national U23s can only benefit from foreign exposure (even if it’s just across the Causeway). They could use toughening up. And the S.League definitely could use a Malaysian presence.

Thing is, the Singapore Lions won’t comprise solely the Young Lions playing in the S.League now. Whoever will coach the Singapore Lions will add five Singaporean players over the age of 23, and two foreign players into his squad. In all likelihood, the Singapore Lions will feature four U23 players in their starting lineups. Sounds great for development.

The FAS’ number one consideration here is not exposure and development for the Young Lions. The men in the VIP boxes are architects of Singapore’s triumphant return to Malaysian football, and they are not going to lose face because of a bunch of green players. Hence the Singapore Lions, rather than the Young Lions.

It would have been interesting to find out if the decision to add senior and foreign players was influenced by the Football Association of Malaysia. Perhaps they told the FAS that they didn’t want a not-so-super U23 team for the Malaysian Super League. After all, it’s clear which side is being perceived as being the one on bended knee, which one who needs the other more. Tellingly however, the Malaysian media reports had it as the Young Lions joining the MSL.

It isn’t clear yet if the Harimau Muda (Young Tigers) side that will compete in the S.League will comprise solely U23 players from Ong Kim Swee’s Olympic team. But if they stick to the name and philosophy of Harimau Muda – and it looks like they will – they’ve got the right idea for development. The FAS on the other hand, has already made their intentions clear by the name and makeup of their team.

The former general secretary of the FAS, John Koh, was not particularly popular during his day, but he showed a perceptive grasp of the situation when he told the Straits Times: “It would be a good move if the team were restricted to U23 players, as the rationale for this move must surely be to bolster FAS’ youth programmes. But by allowing overaged players, many will see it as a poor attempt to bring back the old Malaysian League days. There is a real danger that the S-League would be threatened if that was the reason”.

In the papers, gushing fans rejoiced at Singapore’s reentry. Online, the insults from S.League diehards flew. Most of the flak has been directed at FAS president Zainudin Nordin, who led the Singapore delegation to Kuala Lumpur. More discerning eyes will see however that Zainudin’s hands are not the only ones grasping at the Malaysia Cup.

After all, the FAS and the FAM have been in discussions leading up to this move for at least five years, before Zainudin’s term. For a start, one can assume that the FAS consulted the government. For another thing, nothing moves in Singapore football without a go-ahead from Singapore Pools.The FAS’ general secretary, former marketing head Winston Lee, is also a key player in this affair.

Keeping in mind that player development is not the prime factor in this decision, it becomes clear what is: marketing. The return to Malaysia is a marketing measure, as the FAS banks on the past to draw old customers and hopefully reel in new ones with the glamour of the 90-year-old competition.

As long as the terraces are filled, the punters keep betting and the fans kept enthused by the latest raja kampung, the FAS’ top brains can sit back and enjoy the ride. Just don’t ask them what a Football Association’s raison d’etre should be. You’ll spoil the magic circus that is the Malaysia Cup.

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