Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Asian Football Weekends

Asian Football Weekends

Antony from Jakarta Casual takes EFW to both Singapore and Malaysia as we dip our first toe into the Asian football scene...

Remember that old adage when visiting a ground for the first time? Come out the station and follow the crowds? Don’t work in Singapore. Follow the crowds in Singapore and you’ll likely end up in a shopping

Singaporeans haven’t really taken to football. Well, they have taken to football big time, you’ll lose count of the Manchester United and Liverpool shirts you see, but for them football is a chance to be associated with winners. Losers count for zilch; domestic football counts for less than zilch. On the radar it is there among cockroaches and Malaysian taxi drivers in the popularity stakes. Following your local SLeague team is about as cool as saying you collect used airline chunder bags.

The Singapore match day experience is as squeaky clean and regulated as the country itself. Which makes the deafening music before kick off and at half time so unusual. There’s usually only a few dozen people in the stadium at best of times yet the music is cranked up as loud as possible, on equipment that plainly isn’t up to the task, meaning conversation is all but impossible and distortion fills the air. That’s assuming you even get inside the stadium itself. At Tampines Stadium the ticket office, a rickety desk just inside the stadium, is hard to find. Once you do find it you hand over your 5 dollars and get a ticket from one person. You then hand the ticket to another person who tears off the stub and then you answer a load of questions like what’s in your bag, are you carrying any bottles etc. Let’s put it this way. It’s hardly the most welcoming welcome to a football match but what makes the precautions on incongruous is that there is no bugger there anyway.

Will this stag do?

  The Tampines Stadium*. *Dreadful name, granted, but we'd also moan if it was called the Red Bull Arena 

No programme, no club shop, if you want any souvenirs from the game forget it. Just a cold concrete step to sit on in the main stand and that loud music to while away the time before kick off. Considering Singapore’s success in developing a world class airline and port it does seem odd the football fraternity does nothing to make fans feel welcome when they come to stadium.

So with conversation impossible and nothing to read you sit and listen to the noise. Just before kick off the announcer will race through the team line ups but they won’t mean a thing to the casual visitor unused to the names. Team sheets are available but only in the media area, the rest of the crowd aren’t deemed worthy.

Tampines Rovers 4-1 Tanjong Pagar United

The game itself was between Tampines Rovers and Tanjong Pagar United. The SLeague likes adding United to its club side’s names, in the 12 team division there are fully five Uniteds. Tampines are probably the nearest thing to a glamour club on the island with a fine tradition of success and near success. The recent seasons have seen the trophies dry up as SAFFC have dominated domestically but The Stags, as they are nicknamed, remain hopeful this could be their year and indeed the 4-1 victory over Tanjong Pagar sees them top of the table.

A: Hello, Tamines Estate Agents, Amirtha Speaking. How can I help you?
B: Hi, EFW here, we're interested in buying a flat.....

EFW rejoice following newly acquired accommodation in Singapore

"I say, we've just bought one of those flats overlooking the ground, I SAY....CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

Tanjong Pagar are returning to the league after an absence of a few years. They lack the funds of the big boys like, Tampines, SAFFC and Home United, and are reliant on a very young squad mostly in their early 20s. Expectations were low before the season even began and they went into this game second bottom. Still, poor they may have been, they still managed more shots in the opening 10 minutes than Arsenal did in the 90 against Barcelona in the Champions League.

Tampines were two up in 20 minutes and were looking at chalking up a comfortable victory but Tanjong Pagar hadn’t read the script and scored just before half time, a speculative 25 yard effort spinning off a defender and looping over the keeper’s head. But there was no way The Stags were going to lose this game. Tanjong Pagar huffed and puffed but without any real quality in their line up they rarely threatened Singapore international keeper Hassan Sunny in the Tampines goal.

The game ended 4-1 to Tampines and they went to the top of the SLeague after four games while Tanjong Pagar slipped effortlessly into bottom spot.

For reasons best known to itself the SLeague features games most days of the week. Except Saturday. Saturday clashes with English football. So for people passing through Singapore chances are there is likely to
be a game on. It’s just a question of finding out about it. The local media hardly touch the games, happy to regurgitate yesterday’s headlines from Rooney, Lampard or Mourinho rather than support the game on their own doorstep.

Attendances are small. Forget the official figures which have a Brothers Grimm quality about them and are inflated by the number of free tickets issued. Not used, issued. Singaporeans seem almost united in their apathy towards the game and the Football Association of Singapore seems comfortable with this. Little or no effort is given to promote games or put bums on seats; the whole marketing approach seems to revolve around giving away freebies. Be they tickets or, at one club, ice cream. In over 40 years watching football round the world I have never come across anyone who had been enticed to a game with the promise of free ice cream.

It is possible to whine long and hard about how the SLeague is, or isn’t sold, and believe me I have done so on many occasions. But for all the apathy and negativity that surrounds the game, on the field I have seen some quality games and performances.

Keeping up with Malaysian football is no easy task either. There is a Super League and a Premier League as well as an FA Cup and the Malaysia Cup.

Unlike Singapore, still the second most successful team in Malaysia Cup history, long story, most teams in Malaysia are run by regional Football Associations. Privately run clubs have struggled to make much of an impact and a big reason for their failure is down to branding. Remember, Malaysia is a country which woos tourists with the slogan Malaysia – Truly Asia. Everyone supports Manchester United or Liverpool but most people disdain their local teams.

Selangor and Kelantan are capable of pulling the crowds and the really big games, Malaysia and FA Cup Finals, can pull in excess of 80,000. But many league games are played out in front of the one man and his

Recent private clubs include My Team (who were formed from a reality TV show), KL PLUS (owned by a toll road operator), Kuala Muda (owned by a car showroom), Pos Malaysia (Malaysian Post Office) and Sime Darby (a conglomerate). Despite the fascination with all things English the people behind these teams, some of which are no more, don’t seem to get the intrinsic value of having people ‘identify’ with their team. Supporting a team owned by the post office? Do me a favour!

The state of Johore lies just across the narrow causeway that separates Singapore from Malaysia and is home to three teams. Johor FC are privately owned and play in the top flight Malaysia Super League. They are based in the industrial town of Pasir Gudang, south east of the city of Johore Bahru. There are two teams in the 12 team Premier League; the state owned Johor and MP Muar. Johor themselves are used to dining at the top table of Malaysian football but success has been hard to come by. The mid 1980s till the end of the century they did enjoy 15 years in the spotlight, winning their only six trophies.Those glory years are now a distant memory and they find themselves in the Premier League dreaming of a way back.

For the football fan a day trip from Singapore to Johor is eminently doable, despite the rather nonsensical kick off time of 8.45 pm discouraging a new generation of fan. Direct buses from Queen Street in Singapore take you across the border into Malaysia and onto Larkin bus station, a 10 minute walk from the stadium Johor call home.

Three years ago the Malaysian FA decided it no longer needed foreign players. However, there is a link between last night’s match between Tampines and Tanjong Pagar and the fixture between Johor and USM
Penang. Tampines midfielder Ahmad Latiff played for Johor in 2006 and 2007.

Like Singapore, don’t follow the crowd from the bus terminal. If you do you’ll end up on a bus going to Kuala Lumpur or Melaka. The glory days have long gone from Johor but the supporters are hanging on in there. Indeed, in the fine traditions of mankind the remaining hardcore support have divided themselves in half and they don’t even sit together. I remember earlier in the season when Persija played Persijap in Indonesia. Persijap brought several hundred fans who were divided into two separate groups, neither of whom would associate with the other. One lot would sing, the other sat waiting their turn.

Johor 1-2 USM Penang

With half an hour to kick off there were more cones on the field than there were fans on the terraces. Facilities within the stadium were as sparse as the spectators spread out round the 30,000 capacity ground. One of the sponsors of the league in Singapore make a very nice beer; just don’t expect to find any on sale in the stadium. Likewise in Malaysia there were advertising boards for a fast food restaurant but you won’t find any burgers on sale.

Not a Henry Winter in sight. EFW had the press box all to ourselves

Even enormous floodlights and an old skool scoreboard couldn't entice the locals in

The opposition had fallen head over heels with their new surroundings

Putting aside the monotonous drumming from the handful of PP USM fans the game itself wasn’t too bad. The visitors, who had travelled the length of the Malay Peninsula from Penang played the better football and deserved their 2-1 win.

Despite the awkwardly inconvenient kick off, getting back to Singapore is a breeze as buses keep crossing the border until about 12.30 am. I finally got back to my hotel room about 1 am and in many ways it was a
football experience I remembered from my time back in England. Only warmer. And with passport control!

Two games in two countries in two days with eight goals, missed penalties and less than 500 fans! The football elitists with their English Premier League replica shirts won’t believe me but they were two good games of football with moments of skill mixed in with good old fashioned passion.

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For an offbeat look at Indonesian and South East Asian football from the terraces or the pub - head to the Jakarta Casual website.

- Feel free to comment below -


Danny Last said...

For a bit more on Tampines Rovers, Kenny Legg from the ever excellent Adventures in Tinpot sneaked in there, once:


Anonymous said...

So, we wont be seeing an EFW Oktoberfest sampling the "delights" of the S-League any time soon then!