In the bowels of the cavernous National Stadium at Bukit Jalil, in the afterglow of the 1-1 draw with Malaysia that took Singapore into the third round of World Cup qualifiers, Radojko Avramovic was asked if the aggregate 6-4 victory would spark an upturn in the country’s footballing fortunes. Earlier he had loosed a spontaneous show of emotion at the final whistle, now he was circumspect. “I hope this result will help improve Singapore football,” he said. “There are things and situations that need to be improved but if things stay the way as they were before, then no.”
The Serb knows Singapore. He knows there are institutional and cultural barriers that prevent the country from supping at football’s top table, despite more than 100 years of the game here. Avramovic would not have been surprised then, to be presented with an obstacle to overcome ahead of the third round of qualifiers which sees Singapore grouped with China, Jordan and Iraq.
The problem remains though – the Lions’ 20-year-old vice-captain Hariss Harun is due to be enlisted for national service on August 10, while defender Safuwan Baharudin, so key to Singapore’s assured display at Bukit Jalil, could have problems obtaining leave from his national service commitments to face China on September 2. His police unit is involved in preparations for the presidential election and Safuwan may not be released to represent the country in Kunming. As well, bench players Zulfahmi Arifin, Nazrul Nazari and Afiq Yunos are likely to be called up for national service this month.
The next few months herald a watershed for Singapore football, and it’s not just because the Lions have a half-decent shot at a historic entry into the final round of World Cup qualifiers. The Football Association of Singapore are already in discussions with the authorities for the release of Hariss and Safuwan, without whom Singapore’s chances of advancing are significantly diminished. The authorities may well stick to their guns and keep Safuwan to guard ballot boxes and Hariss for basic training. In that case, the status quo will be enforced and Singapore football will once again be reminded that they can count on little institutional support.
Fans and officials have advanced the view that representing the country in sport is a form of national service, and while no wide survey has been done on the issue, public support is more likely than not to lean in that direction. The government has shown little sign that it shares this sentiment though.
Might it be just a question of hammering out a solution to the thorny issue of sportsmen in national service, a solution that does right by the sportsman, his sport and his national service commitments? Two things are certain: the sportsman has to serve national service like his peers, and during this period he has to maintain continuous training in his sport in order not to lose on a crucial period of his development. Do these two requirements need to be mutually exclusive? Perhaps not, as the experience of other countries shows.
In South Korea for example, the Sangmu club (currently based in the city of Sangju) is a military team that plays in the top flight of the K-League. Sangmu only uses Korean players serving national service, and keeps them in touch with top level football during their compulsory two-year military stint. This is a country which remains in a technical state of war and has the nuclear weapons of a hostile neighbour pointed at its head, yet it can set aside a team of national servicemen for the sporting good of the nation. Clearly, the South Koreans recognise that a competitive football team contributes much to national unity.
Theoretically, Singapore’s S.League contains two teams which share Sangmu’s role. Home United however have used scant numbers of national servicemen in their first team, while SAFFC seem totally uninterested in utilising young talent from the army ranks. At the inception of the S.League, Home and SAFFC were included for the purpose of maintaining the development of young talent during their national service years. Somewhere along the way though, they have deviated from that mission.
With Home and SAFFC seemingly set on their present courses, the Young Lions could be a better vehicle for keeping a core of 20 to 25 national players together during their national service. In practical terms, for this military-sporting partnership to work, the Singapore Armed Forces as an institution will need to have a sense of ownership in the Young Lions. They must know that the national servicemen at the Young Lions are serving the country, the same way in which their peers in green and blue are.
The 20 to 25 national servicemen selected for the Young Lions each year should complete their basic military training (generally in three months), but there should be flexibility in these call-ups, ensuring they do not clash with major tournaments. They will then serve their national service with the Young Lions, and must maintain their footballing development; if the national coach decides that a player is not progressing, he should return to his military unit. For their part, the Football Association of Singapore will need to ensure a military-esque discipline within the Young Lions setup.
All this would require a little official recognition that football’s capacity to unite Singaporeans is surpassed only by food and shopping. And neither of those two activities has ever seen a spontaneous rendering of the Majulah Singapura, as Acting Minister for Community, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing witnessed at Bukit Jalil last month courtesy of a happy group of Lions fans.
Over the years, the Lions have made pretty significant contributions to at least two of the five pillars of Total Defence. The SAF sees the psychological value of organising National Day Parades, perhaps it may come to see the nation-building worth of football as well.