Ask any Malaysian or Singaporean in a street poll to name their favourite football club, and an almost immediate response will bring out a list of club names from the English Premier League (EPL), with an odd mention of a Barcelona or Real Madrid somewhere in between.
Of course, within the list of EPL clubs, it is almost certain to be one of six clubs, namely Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester City.
Even at the international level, recognising that these two countries’ national sides are not likely to make any headway at the Asian Games or Olympics, let alone the World Cup, for a long time to come, most of us football supporters have adopted our favourite European or South American nation.
That is just the way things are in this part of the world when it comes to appreciating the beautiful game, or the professional game if we want to be more specific.
I was reminded of this again last Friday, watching what was called the Causeway Challenge, a friendly between the Singapore and Malaysian national sides at the island republic’s National Stadium.
For the first time in 10 years – and 10 matches between the “Tigers” (Harimau Malaya) and “Lions” – no goals were scored.
What was worse, if you are a Malaysian, is that Singapore dominated the match, spending most of the 90 minutes in the opposing half, yet were not able to to score.
The match brought back a lot of memories on the rivalry between the two sides in what could be considered their heyday, in the 1970s and early 80s.
Malaysia was definitely a force to be reckoned with, not just in Southeast Asia, but all of Asia during that period.
After all, we took on and defeated the full national sides of South Korea and Japan, respectively, back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Then came the last great achievement for our national side – which was partly symbolised in the local box-office smash Ola Bola earlier this year. It was when we defeated South Korea in April 1980 to qualify for the Moscow Olympics later that year.
Of course, with the US-led boycott of the Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before, our men were forced to skip the Olympics.
The national football side never regained its glory after that success.
I believe Singapore was quite evenly matched with the Malaysian national side during that period, partly from their active participation in the Malaysia Cup against top state sides like Selangor, Pahang and Kuala Lumpur at the time.
From a national team viewpoint, though, I would say Singapore just raised their game against us whenever we met. History had demanded it after all.
Getting back to the issue of the professional game, both countries have had a professional or semi-professional league in operation over the past three decades. But operationally, especially in Malaysia, it has been anything but professional.
In Malaysia, the problem lies with the people at the helm of the national football association and its affiliated state associations. With football being the national sport, commanding a huge following, there is either some political personality or an ardent football-supporting member of the royalty in the seat of power.
The result of this is a brain drain with qualified, proven and effective administrators leaving our shores for greener pastures, where there is less patronage, less interference and more focus on the game itself.
Recently, more money has gone into the game with the “privatisation” of the sport at the club level, but it has not helped the national side at all. What more with the “early retirement” of a few senior players a few months ago, allegedly to avoid a conflict between club and country when it comes to national team selection.
For Singapore, owing to the government’s closer scrutiny and a higher level of efficiency in the way things are run generally, the situation is not so bad at the administrative level.
It’s the lack of talent that is most apparent. Football just does not pay enough compared with the other careers that a young man can get in to. Most parents discourage their son’s active involvement in football past the high-school level.
Football, sadly, is not seen as a career choice. Hence, the smaller pool of talent will by ratio produce fewer choices good enough for a national side. The practical solution taken by the Singapore football authority is in naturalising a select number of imported talents, and boosting some form of grassroots development.
The latest FIFA rankings, dated Sept 15 – Singapore were ranked 155 and Malaysia ranked 158 – also reflect the above mentioned weaknesses in both countries that have affected the following for the national teams.
However, there are other factors too, of course, namely match-fixing, which continues to put off fans; and the lack of big money sponsors, especially since the total ban on the tobacco industry from any form of sponsorship or advertising.
Finally, the fact that top quality football from Europe has been delivered straight to our homes for almost 20 years now, via live telecasts of matches from the EPL, Primera Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A, has also made local fans make the obvious comparison and raise expectations to almost unrealistic levels for the football they watch on the local front.
National pride will always surface whenever there are international matches, especially during the Asean Football Federation’s (AFF) Suzuki Cup every two years.
However, such emotions are not enough to help the raise the standard of football for the better. To be frank, Malaysians and Singaporeans have accepted our footballing fate and will just continue to seek glory through adopted teams, thousands of miles away, in order to continue to celebrate the beautiful game.