In a tale of two Asian Premier Leagues, at the end of February, there could be no greater contrast in fortunes between Hong Kong and Singaporean football.
On February 25th, the entire 2021/2022 Hong Kong Premier league season was completely canceled. All sports facilities were again off limits due to Hong Kong’s fifth wave. One of the most openly competitive professional seasons in recent history was over thus leading to a very uncertain future for many team’s staff.
Many players already have part-time jobs to subsidise their football careers and sadly now, the outlook will be even bleaker.
Kitchee and Lee Man are about play in Asian continental competitions though domestically, the structural issues, uncertainty and lack of stability, which has plagued the HK league, have been laid bare with the on-going situation.
Some would say, this is a tipping point, as this is possibly HK’s football’s lowest ebb.
There is some financial relief, in terms of short term grants, though long-term sustainability and a workable financial model always seems out of reach for HK football and the game itself, just suffers.
In stark contrast, on February 25th, the Singapore Premier League season kicked off with Tanjong Pagar United FC, Albirex Niigata FC (S), Balestier Khalsa FC and Tampine Rovers all in action in the first round of weekend games.
While Hong Kong football undergoes it’s annual cycle of seeing if there are enough teams to run an actual league; in order to give the viewing public the best product possible, the Singapore League have also announced that they will introduce VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in the near future and have just launched their own version of fantasy football.
At the time of writing, the Singaporean Football League is now in round four and Singapore are currently hosting the Tri-nations friendly series between themselves, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Video: Singapore Versus Malaysia in ‘Tri-Nations” Friendly Series (including the Phillipines)
While some may say that football is only a game, it is a past time that runs deep into the souls of both Hong Kong and Singapore. The beautiful game is part of the fabric of both societies and many livelihoods are tied to the sport. Unfortunately, only one league seems to be progressing these days.
From this past March 18th, Singaporean stadiums have allowed more fans inside to view games ‘live’ and will be capped at 50 percent of each stadium’s total capacity; though fans have to wear masks and have to be fully vaccinated.
Like Hong Kong, sports lovers in Singapore have had to endure time out from their favourite sporting pastimes. Both the physical and mental health implications have also been quite far and wide though Singapore have since opened up their sports facilities on February 25th; for groups of up to 30 fully vaccinated persons.
30 is deemed a fair number as it would encompass (except for 15’s rugby) players, coaches and umpires for a majority of social team sports. Sporting participants are also advised to self test before partaking in the events/matches.
Video: Is Singapore A Football City?
To further explore how Singapore has opened up in a sporting sense and discuss the current landscape of the Singapore Premier League; Rhysh Roshan Rai, a familiar face to both Singaporean Football fans and viewers across the Asia Pacific, kindly spoke to offside.hk.
Photo: Roshan Rai Presenting For Fox Sports
Rai is a former player, who played as a midfielder for Home United, Singapore Armed Forces FC and Balestier Khalsa. Rai made the challenging leap from making box to box runs in the S-League, AFC Champions League and AFC Cup into a media role as independent football pundit and AFC B certified coach.
Video: Roshan Rai and John Dykes discuss the Singapore Premier League
Rai is now one of Asia’s premier pundits and currently wears many different hats in his efforts to promote Singaporean football, Asian football and the global game. He juggles being an assistant producer, presenter, pundit and commentator. He can now primarily be seen giving his expert opinion on both Asian and European football on Disney Plus and for the Asian Football Confederation.
For Rai, being able to pursue his passion, is hard work though no doubt satisfying. Football is now 24/7, and Rai has presented and commentated on the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, AFC Asian Cup, AFC Champions League, AFC Cup, and the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Video: Previewing Upcoming Action
Rai kindly took time from his football media work to give the low- down on Singaporean football and how the Singapore Premier League has adapted in order to kick off their latest season.
The Singapore Premier League is up and running with eight teams participating. Rai spoke about some of the health and safety procedures that the FAS / Singapore Premier League have implemented to allow teams to start the season.
“The teams are required to make sure they follow the guidelines closely. Having said that, there have still been players and clubs affected by COVID cases in the squad. Since there are no strict bubbles with regard to the teams/players having to place themselves in. Life pretty much is going back to normal over here so it is understandable that there will still be cases of COVID in the teams. Obviously, those players who are affected and have tested positive, must isolate until they recover.
So far, we have not had any major outbreaks in teams reported. Some teams have had COVID cases in the squad but they have still been able to fulfil their matches as scheduled so far. As far as I’m aware, there is regular testing of players and staff at clubs.”
With global football pretty much back up and running, Rai elaborated how many fans are currently allowed to attend Singapore Premier League games and the safety procedures in place for them.
“The capacity for fans allowed into stadiums has been increased to 50% of the venue. So, for example, a 6000 capacity Jalan Besar Stadium can now accommodate 3000 fans for matches played at that venue. Previously, only 1000 fans were allowed. Now, as things are improving, those capacity restrictions have been eased. Entry to match venues is only allowed for fans who are fully vaccinated and they have to keep their masks on inside the venue. There is no food or drinks allowed inside the stadium.”
Photo: Geylang International FC. Photo from Geylang International FC
At the height of the global pandemic, many games were played behind closed doors. Rai discussed how the SPL fans adapted to watching their team at the height of the pandemic when some games were played behind closed doors.
“The Singapore Premier League is broadcast for free around the world. When fans couldn’t enter the stadiums due to COVID restrictions in the past, they were able to follow the action by watching the matches on the official SPL Youtube/Facebook pages as well as on cable tv channels here. This season, the league is also being broadcast on the streaming platform of the national broadcaster, Mediacorp. All matches of the league are available with commentary.”
Photo: Tanjong Pagar United F.C – Photo from Tanjong Pagar United Facebook
Hong Kong professional football has very little consistency. HK club teams are often run by rich individuals and their level of interest or financial commitment basically dictates if the club, and hence the livelihood of the staff, continues.
Photos: Hong Kong Versus Singapore in 2014 by Chris Lau
Rai spoke about the Singapore Club ownership model and how the FAS helps to assist clubs. Some experts have stated that the ownership of Singapore club football itself needs to be revamped and needs a new governance model. This expert states that FAS should think about all current Singapore Premier League (SPL) clubs, registered as societies, to be registered as charities.
Photo: Singapore’s New Generation of Players. Source: Young Lions Facebook Page
Hong Kong’s professional clubs do not receive much public sector funding; yet in 2017, the FAS received about S$22.6 million from SportSG and the Tote Board, for the betterment of the domestic game. Of the S$22.6 million, about S$15.4 million was allocated to the SPL clubs in the now rebranded S-League.
Photo: Hougang United Football Club, Owned by Bill Ng and Coached by Clement Teo
“Most clubs in Singapore are funded/supported by the Football Association of Singapore with seed money distributed to the clubs. Clubs receive public funding from Sport Singapore (SportSG) and the Singapore Totalisator Board (Tote Board) through the FAS, and bring them in line with the FAS’ status as a registered charity since March 2011.”
Photos: Kitchee Versus Balestier Khalsa in the AFC Cup 2015 by Chris Lau
Rai discussed the financial side of the league.
“Based on the FAS’s financial statements for Financial Year 2017, it received about S$22.6 million from SportSG and the Tote Board. Of this, S$15.4 million was allocated to the SPL clubs for the local football league competition, known previously as the S-League.
Photo: Tampine Rovers Football Club. Photo from Club’s Facebook Page
However, how the SPL clubs spend these public funds and other monies raised through their operations remains unclear to the public. This is because the clubs do not need to make their accounts public, and only need to report their accounts to the FAS and to the Registrar of Societies on an annual basis.”
Photo: Lion City Sailors – Facebook Page
All leagues have a team or two with financial clout and Singapore is no different.
“The only club that is fully privatized at the moment is the Lion City Sailors. In February of 2020, Singaporean Billionaire, Forrest Li bought over Home United Football Club and renamed it to the Lion City Sailors. They are Singapore’s richest club at the moment and have grown exponentially over the last 2 years with big investments in the playing squad and also infrastructure around the club: academy, coaching staff, marketing, social media. The long term goal for Singapore football clubs is to have them all privatized one day. However, it still looks like full privatization of the league is some way off.”
— lioncitysailorsfc (@lioncitysailors) March 29, 2022
Rai also talked about how the Singapore league, in a bid to boost the level of domestic competition and attract more fans, allowed Albirex Niigata Singapore, a satellite team of Japanese club Albirex Niigata, to join the S. League in 2004.
Hong Kong saw a similar experiment in the 2012–13 season, when Yokohama FC Hong Kong entered the fray as J. League Division 2 team Yokohama F.C purchased a Hong Kong Football Association membership to form the team.
The experimental team lasted for two years and made a minor splash though were no great shakes in an ever revolving door of players and teams in Hong Kong’s football’s sand like foundations.
The Yokohama FC kit is probably a collectors item and the website still exists at http://www.yokohamafc-hk.com/en/
Photos: Yokohama Hong Kong FC versus Kitchee in 2014 by Chris Lau
The addition of Albirex Niigata, to the Singapore footballing landscape, has proven to be the correct one.
“Yes, Albirex Niigata has been a successful addition to the Singapore league ecosystem.” Rai said, “since their introduction into the league, they have always been one of the teams that have been competitive and play an attractive style of football. They have also introduced many Japanese players of a good quality to Singapore football and some of those players have signed on as foreign players with teams in the S-League/SPL.”
Photo: Albirex Niigata Singapore. Reference: https://www.facebook.com/ANFCS/photos
Albirex have also given back to the community with the establishment of youth teams and youth training sessions.
“In recent years, they have also started their own youth teams made up of Singaporean players. Their SPL team has also signed some Singaporean players. Some have improved their own standard of play and professionalism because of their spell with Albirex. Aside from what they do on the pitch, Albirex have also been involved in their community and have set up coaching/academy sessions in their community. They have also been winning trophies in recent years and have given local teams a push to try and reach their standards. Their presence in the league has certainly been positive.”
Photo: Albirex Niigata Singapore. Reference: https://www.facebook.com/ANFCS/photos
The Hong Kong league have the Under 23’s Team and the Sapling Cup tournament to help provide young players with greater playing time and experiences; the Young Lions, are Singapore’s developmental football team.
“The Young Lions project started off with quite a strong team that initially did well in the S.League.” Rai opined, “however, in recent years, there have been more and more questions about the purpose of the project as the Young Lions have continued to do poorly in the league and regularly finish towards the bottom of the table.
One of the benefits of the project is that it allows young Singaporean players in National Service to continue to train and play in the SPL. It is also a development team for the Singapore senior side and in theory, all the best young talents tend to play for the Young Lions. The quality of Singapore’s national youth teams has come under the spotlight in recent years especially as they don’t do well on the international stage in terms of their results.”
Both Hong Kong and Singapore love the beautiful game.
Though no league is perfect; despite the efforts of some hardworking individuals, one seems to be trapped in a perpetual time-warp.
Only one season is currently at play and the repercussions will be telling for both respective domestic sides in the short-term and the long-term.
Only time will tell.