SINGAPORE: They have stopped walking over to my desk with their usual offering of snacks, and for that my colleagues have my gratitude. 

There’s a little wager I’ve taken up, to sculpt a six-pack from spare tyre, and the support and goodwill coming my way has been nothing short of sensational. This is – at least anecdotally – commonplace. 

See, the folks I went to school with turn 40 this year, and the declaration of goals among us, from losing 20 kg in weight to surpassing personal bests in the marathon clocked some 20 years prior, is rampant. Support has come out of the woodwork in force, with spouses cooking up healthy meals, words of encouragement on social media, even offers from experts to draw up sports science-backed programmes. 

Our goal affects these supporters in no way at all, but there is wild backing, this despite the fact that most of my ilk have, mostly through excesses and bad decisions, put ourselves in at the mercy of resilient 40-year-old flab in the first place. 
 
That similar overflowing of goodwill has not been extended to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) in their own audacious goal of seeing the Singapore flag flown at the Fifa World Cup in 2034. That is a little perplexing, even if understandable. 

READ: MCCY supports FAS ‘drive for excellence’, discussion on Goal 2034 to continue: Joint statement

ONCE BITTEN TWICE SHY?
Sure, there was failure in the past with a similar endeavour, Goal 2010. The Lions tumbled out of qualification rather meekly in the third round of qualifiers played in 2008, and critics have yet to stop reminding the FAS of that. 

Schadenfreude isn’t ever a good look, and in this instance, it was at least a little misplaced – no Southeast Asian country has ever played at the World Cup finals, much less ours, the region’s smallest nation. And in the years after former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the Goal 2010 project in 1998, the Lions went on to win four ASEAN football championship trophies, starting in 1998 in what was a historic first international title for Singapore.  

The perceived Goal 2010 failure came with some semblance of regional dominance, and gave rise to a generation of footballers who came just one goal shy, on a cold and windy night in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 2010, from becoming the first Singapore team to qualify on merit for the Asian Cup finals. 

One of those players, Hariss Harun, went on to become the first Singaporean to win the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup in 2015 with Johor Darul Takzim, and was even named Malaysian football’s best ASEAN player in 2018. 

File of photo of Hariss Harun, captain of Singapore’s football team. (Photo: TODAY) 

THE WHEELS HAVE COME OFF 
Since Singapore’s last ASEAN title in 2012, things have gone a little pear-shaped – akin to some Singaporeans turning 40 in 2020 – as the Lions tumbled down the Fifa world rankings, and started to struggle even against opposition once considered regional minnows. 

There is nonchalant negativity associated with the local professional league that has not retained Singaporean imagination since the heady days of sell-out crowds between its 1996 launch to the early noughties.  

READ: Commentary: Why sports still has a place in Singapore

Exacerbated by scandal, money issues and a perceived lack of professionalism, the Singapore Premier League (SPL) situation does not seem to lend confidence to the public that a World Cup qualifying effort could be launched from such a platform. 

The Warriors FC situation is perhaps the plainest example in recent history. The league’s most successful club with nine titles, and Singapore’s only ever representatives in the Asian Champions League group stages, Warriors were instructed to sit out the 2020 season of the SPL. 

This for being in “dire financial straits”, after being charged for failing to pay salaries of some S$350,000 to more than 30 of its employees last year. Media reports have not made clear how the club will repay its debts. 

Some argue that sports is no longer a part of the Singapore psyche, and sure, it doesn’t seem to flow in our veins like it did before the turn of the millennium, but there are clearly a few threads securely twined around the fabric of our nation. We saw that when we rallied around Joseph Schooling and his Olympic dream, then thronged the streets following his historical gold medal win in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.  

READ: Commentary: Jo Schooling, a hunted man on a quest for gold and so much more

BUT EVEN UNLIKELIEST UNDERDOGS CAN ACHIEVE
The Schooling example is perhaps apt in this discussion: besides Colin and May, which of us can say we believed in Joe’s dream in its nascence? With little initial support, they backed Joe to the hilt, making him a living sporting legend of the country even before he hangs up his goggles. 

A concerted effort kick started by one family did pay dividends in an individual sport like swimming, but football is clearly a different proposition. It requires more than just individual talent and dedication to excellence. 

Indeed, from encouragement at home to support in the school system, and even the time off and facilities available to train at an elite level, even as aspiring Lions serve national service when they turn 18, Singapore’s football success clearly takes a village – and belief at a national scale.

READ: Commentary: The Singapore Sports School crushed Assumption Pathway 32-0. Nothing wrong with that

Like it was with Schooling, belief in sports is a bit of a gamble, no? Few would have predicted that a Chye Tow Kway-loving boy from Marine Parade would go on to beat history’s greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps. 

No crystal ball would have shown unfancied Leicester City besting all the giants of English football to the league title in 2016, that a 20-year-old labouring in obscurity in Germany’s lower leagues would go on to be history’s highest goal-scorer at the Fifa World Cup – Germany’s Miroslav Klose – or that among the mere 300,000 citizens that call Iceland home, there would be 23 who would propel the nation into the 2018 World Cup, and even manage a draw with Lionel Messi’s Argentina.

Miroslav Klose, the all-time top scorer at World Cup finals with 16 goals, will be on the Germany

Miroslav Klose, the all-time top scorer at World Cup finals 

WHAT’S A RISK WORTH TAKING?
Forged in an era of phenomenal national growth that saw Singapore catapult from third world to first, we are understandably addicted to success, and crave association with winners. 

Some audacious risks were needed for the growth of our nation, and even for our football. Those sepia-tinted memories of the 1970s and 80s, widely regarded as the golden age of Singapore football, came on the back of a much-criticised gutsy move that we perhaps should keep in mind as football embarks on another one. 

READ: Commentary: Why success should not be the only factor in deciding what is Singapore’s national sport

In 1974, the late N Ganesan insisted the FAS move football matches from the 10,000-capacity Jalan Besar Stadium to the newly minted National Stadium that could fit 55,000. Badgered by naysayers, who didn’t believe Singaporeans would come out in such numbers for its Lions, the former FAS chairman offered to pay for any losses incurred out of his own pocket.

Ganesan’s audacious wager provided a bigger platform for the likes of Quah Kim Song and the late Dollah Kassim. Those Lions slalomed their way into the hearts of Singaporeans who did come together to create the “Kallang Roar” we still speak fondly of – and yearn for – today, as the billion-dollar Sports Hub continues to search for its soul.

Players from that era still speak of how the hairs on their back would stand as electricity in the air at Kallang touched their skin. And how the Kallang Roar would, like Liverpool’s legendary Anfield’s Kop End, help them dig deep and find more than they believed existed within.  

Football is now asking for some of that innate Singaporean risk-taking, a dash of belief and a little goodwill, to fuel another wild effort, as a village. 

Some of us are already doing our little bits to back bold ventures of middle-agers striving to cling on to vestiges of youth, even though we’re acutely aware that abs, speed and stamina are longshots at best. 

So why not a more worthwhile punt, to root for kids across the island who dare to dream – like Joe did of Olympic gold – of being a Lion, to roar in 2034? 

Shamir Osman was a former sports journalist for 12 years before crossing the aisle to work in public relations.

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