I’m glad I attended Saturday night’s thrilling Asean Football Championship match between Singapore and Malaysia at the National Stadium, which Singapore won on 5-4 on penalties (1-1 after extra time). My friends and I sure got our $6 worth! It cost only $1 per goal and a few more for the lozenges for my sore throat which I got from cheering the Lions and taunting the Malaysian fans seated near my section. (Just kidding, I didn’t really need the lozenges.)
It was probably the first time since the Malaysia Cup days that the National Stadium has been filled to such capacity with a sea of red, cheering on our national team. The atmosphere in the gallery was electric. As I entered the gates, a battalion of Malaysian fans decked in yellow and carrying Malaysian flags was provocatively marching around the perimeter of the stadium. I could just imagine what it was like when Northern Irish Protestants would march through Catholic residential areas and spark riots, and vice versa. Singaporean fans were sufficiently provoked to heap loads of vitriolic insults on the Malaysians, although there was little risk of any physical violence breaking out.
Looking at the young crowd around me, it dawned on me that at least half the fans had never seen the Lions in action during the Malaysia Cup, as they were too young when Singapore pulled out of the tournament. Their cheers were loud, but uncoordinated. Nevertheless, it was great being able to cheer for our team side-by-side with Singaporeans of all races, and “high fiving” complete strangers after our goals.
Football is able to arouse patriotic emotions and gel the people like nothing else apart from war itself. It is the only time you see “apathetic” young Singaporeans singing the national anthem with such gusto.
While I appreciate the money and resources being pumped into sports like sailing and shooting to win us an Olympic gold medal, I hope more effort can be made to raise the standard of football in this country. If the goal of sports (from a national development perspective) is to rally the country together, then football really has no rivals. Think about it: Would you rather cheer for the Lions as they score against Malaysia in the Asean Football Championship semi-finals, or read in the papers about how our sailors have won an Olympic medal in the Beijing Olympics? Now imagine the Singapore football team beating China or Japan at some Asian football championships or — I dare say — the World Cup!
I mean no disrespect to our sailors and shooters. I have no doubt that they have worked incredibly hard to achieve their Olympic-class standards. But the fact that these are not spectator sports means that the impact of their wins will pale in comparison to football trophies.
Although the Lions are far from achieving the standards required to compete at the international stage, football development funds should not be redirected to other non-spectator sports that are more likely to win us an Olympic medal — unless of course winning an Olympic medal is more important because it fulfils the key performance indicators (KPIs) of some sports officials in Singapore.
Let’s rally behind the Lions as they play in the championship match against Thailand tomorrow!