The S-League trudges into its 20th season with more controversies and calamities than acclamations and accolades.
The recent public relations disaster from its U-turn over imposing an age cap was the latest setback to hit Singapore's professional football league, which is already losing both clubs and fans.
With Tanjong Pagar United sitting out next season owing to financial troubles, coupled with the enforced merger of Woodlands Wellington and Hougang United, the 10-team competition is a pale shadow of its nascent version that drew sizeable support.
Today, while coffee shops and pubs are packed for European football offerings, most S-League matches fail to draw crowds of over 800.
The oft-cited argument of Singaporeans' obsession with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool does not hold, since the LionsXII have regularly filled the 7,500-capacity Jalan Besar Stadium when they host Malaysian Super League matches.
But the S-League, with its plethora of marketing gimmicks and half-time lucky draws, simply cannot get the average football junkie to fork out less than $10 for a game.
Painful but pressing decisions are needed to revive the ailing league; perhaps it can draw encouragement from the new Indian Super League, which has been backed by celebrities and companies.
"They should close the S-League, re-brand it with new clubs across the island and franchise them like they did in India," said league stalwart Indra Sahdan, 35, who retired after last season.
"Maybe we should have eight teams, bankrolled by big companies like Temasek Holdings and DBS, to make it really competitive."
One former S-League club general manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed the competition is being run as "lip service", with players and officials comfortable living off subsidies from the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), believed to be between $800,000 and $1 million annually. He added: "No one wants to rock the boat. So why bother doing community outreach to sponsors and fans?"
But former national player R. Sasikumar believes more funding is the answer, though it should go towards signing quality foreign talent and improving salaries.
A local player typically earns around $3,000 a month in the S-League but those in the Prime League, featuring the clubs' reserve teams, are paid only a paltry $300.
Said Sasi who runs marketing firm Red Card: "Part of the draw of the league in the past was the good foreign players we had.
"People wanted to come see Zsolt Bucs take a free kick or see an Egmar Goncalves bicycle kick.
"They were solid professionals and the local players looked up to them. They made a big difference.
"The foreign players we are getting now are not of that standard."
The apparent lack of professionalism was highlighted in this year's league fitness test. Just 18 per cent of local players clocked below nine minutes in the 2.4km run, compared to 70 per cent for Japanese side Albirex Niigata, one of three foreign clubs in the S-League.
The passing mark is 10 minutes.
"Outside of training, many S-League players don't behave like professionals," bemoaned one club chairman. "They eat unhealthy food, smoke and drink - the opposite of how (recently-retired national striker) Aleksandar Duric looks after himself."
A healthy domestic league replenishes the talent pool for the national team. Not surprisingly, Singapore's 22-man Suzuki Cup squad was made up of just five players attached to an S-League club other than the Courts Young Lions.
Duric's solution to save the S-League is clear but controversial: Scrap the LionsXII.
He said: "We need our best players playing in our own league. That sends the clearest message that FAS takes the competition seriously and sincerely wants it to improve."
This article was first published on Dec 14, 2014.
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