After winning the Malaysia Cup in 1994, Singapore decided to pull out from M-League following the dispute with FAM over gate receipts.
The decision means Singapore will no longer enter a team in what was then South East Asia’s most lucrative football league. The FA of Singapore (FAS) decided to concentrate on setting up domestic professional league, aptly name S-League which started its first season in 1996.
In the beginning, S-League went through several turbulent seasons. Combined attendance of all clubs in the S-League is still no match to the amount of fans attending Singapore matches during their M-League years. The future look bleak, a small, island state doesn’t seem to be the right environment for a professional, money-making football league.
But there is one thing that Singapore has that other South East Asian countries lack of. Good management (or perhaps good governance) which turns the S-League into a proper professional league that FAS aspires it to be. The league may not be as big as those in Malaysia or Indonesia, but it serves its purpose, to develop talent and improve the standard of football in Singapore.
Results of the S-League are obvious. The S-League itself is a Grade C league and ranked 11 among Asian football leagues. The Singapore national team is ranked 135 in the world, with all the national players themselves plying their trade in S-League. In comparison the M-League is Grade D league and ranked 18 in Asia, with the Malaysian football team at position 158 in FIFA ranking, perceptibly suffering from M-League’s lack of quality.
That gives the decision makers of Malaysian football many issues to consider. There is no concrete evidence that Singapore departure from the M-League contribute to the downward spiral of M-League and Malaysian football, but the correlation is there. The Malaysian professional league started to lose its appeal from 1994 onward, and the qualities slowly depreciate. It seems with Singapore gone, the FAM loss a member of the league that provide them some sort of check and balance in terms of management and professionalism.
Today, the S-League is in a class of its own. The average attendance of its matches is still far from Singapore’s M-League years, the passion is not as energetic as those in Indonesian Super League (ISL) and their national team is still behind South East Asian football powerhouse Thailand. But in terms on professionalism and management, S-League set the benchmark in all ASEAN. They exude sense of professionalism, seemingly transparent and its portal clearly more up to date and informative compared to the rest.
The new 2009 season kicks off in 16 February, seven days to go in what is describe as ‘another thrilling S-League season’ that awaits ‘die hard football fans’. Sponsors like Yeo’s, Tiger, RHB Bank and many more are lining up. Player transfers and new signings help to build up the atmosphere, with the headlines carefully choreographed to ensure the heat.
There are also rumours of Brunei DPMM FC, a Bruneian football club and another castaway of M-League will be playing in the S-League this year. The club’s website seems to be pretty sure about it, though S-League portal remain silent.
Whatever it may be, the Brunei DPMM FC’s desire to join S-League is the proof of the league’s attraction. Geographical issue surely is the main constraint here and the plan most likely not going to work, but enough to set the alarm in FAM.
What if Johor Pasir Gudang one day decided to play in the S-League instead? Or a professional club emerge in Johor Bahru to compete in the S-League? The causeway rivalries between Singapore and Johor will make any football fans in these two areas to salivate in full anticipation. And the promise of better management, all out professionalism makes the package more interesting to any clubs from Johor who wish to cross over.
To summarise it, M-League is slowly losing to S-League and so is Malaysian football in comparison to Singapore. Back in 1994, it was a bold decision by FAS to pull out of M-League and venture into the unknown territory of running their own football league. Fifteen years later, they can safely say they have made the right decision.
The league is going stronger than ever and Singaporean football seems to be improving. Sceptics may tend to disagree, but then FAS can always lean back and say “Look across the strait and the sorry state of Malaysian football”.