Singapore Premier League - Should the league say goodbye to foreign clubs?

Published on 30 July 2021 at 14:29

A constant topic of debate in Singapore football is whether or not there needs to be foreign teams in the league.


For those that aren't familiar, the Singapore Premier League was founded in 1996 and whilst there was a buzz to start off with, the league gradually saw a decrease in attendances. Football was huge in Singapore back in the 80's and 90's, with many nationals fondly remembering Singapore's dominance over the likes of Selangor, Perak and Penang in the Malaya Cup. But for whatever reason, the same fans couldn't get behind the formation of the league. Perhaps it was because of the decline of success in Singapore both as city (previously) and now as a country.


So in an effort to improve their wavering interest and following, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), made the decision to invite foreign teams into the league. 


In 2003, the first team was invited to the league in the form of Sinchi FC, a club from China. They played in the league for three seasons with their best league finish being 7th. In 2006 they were dissolved.


The second foreign team to join the league was Albirex Niigata in 2004. For those of you who follow Japanese football, you may be confused as to how there can be two Albirex Niigata's. But, this is because Japan's Albirex Niigata decided to send a satellite club to partcipate in the Singapore Premier League. The Singaporean Niigata, otherwise known as the White Swans, still play in the league to this day and are the most successful foreign team to have joined the league. They have won the league 4 times, the cup 4 times, the league cup 4 times and community shield 3 times. 


The third and fourth foreign teams to join the league, were in the form of Sporting Afrique, a club made up of African players and Super Reds, a club made up of South Korean players. After one season, Sporting Afrique were refused a place in the 2007 S.League due poor performances and controversy off-field. Super Reds were also denied entry to the 2010 S.League after three seasons. This was due to the club attempting to covert into a team of local players. Both clubs have since disolved.


Then came the Chinese Super Leagues attempts of creating a successful foregin club in the S.League. They sent Liaoning FC in 2007, Dalian Shide FC in 2008 and Beijing Guoan in 2010 respectivley. However all three Chinese clubs only last one season before being dissolved. This was due to disciplinary issues and poor performances.

In 2009, Bruneian club DPMM FC joined the league. They were first foreign club to play in the league that remained based outside of Singapore. They played one season in the league but recieved a ban from FIFA, preventing them for participating. However, in 2012 DPMM they were allowed to re-enter the league where they have remained up until this most recent season. Due to the Covid Pandemic, the Brunei governement refused to allow DPMM to play in the Singapore Premier League. So DPMM are currently playing in the Brunei Super League for this 2021 season. It is not known whether they will rejoin for the 2022 season next year. DPMM have won the Singpore Premier League twice since joining.


In 2010, a French club by the name of Étoile FC joined the league and won in their first season. However after two years in the league, Etoile FC pulled out in order to focus on youth development and grassroots football.


The last foreign teams to join the league were two youth sides from Malaysia, Harimau Muda A and Harimau Muda B. They joined the league after an agreement was reached between the Football Association of Malaysia and Football Association of Singapore to send representative teams to each others league. With Singapore side LionsXll joining the Malysian Super League. Whilst the LionsXll were a big success in the Malaysian Super League, the same could not be said for the two Harimau Muda teams. A decision was then made to pull all teams from the respective two leagues.


The Debate

A conversation which reguarly occurs between Singaporean Football fans is whether the inclusion of foreign teams has or hasn't improved the following and interest of the Singapore Premier League.

For Foreign Teams

Whilst controversial, having foreign teams in the league may have arguably improved the quality of football played. Unlike other foreign teams who have joined over the years, Albirex Niigata and DPMM have shown their skill and quality to stand above other teams in the league. In fact no other team has won the Singapore Premier League since Warriors FC in 2015. You can also argue that having foreign teams does add some excitement and energy to the league. This is because we see different types of players, styles, tactics as well as some competitiveness amongst teams. Local teams want to do well and prove a point against the foreign clubs. So perhaps with that extra incentive, local sides are being to train more, better and look at their development in order to compete not only in terms of progression but also in matches too.


Against Foreign Teams

However, whilst some may argue the benefits of having foreign teams, you can understand why people think it has been more of hinderance. The aim of the Football Association of Singapore is to increase awareness and interest of the Singapore League, however have they just undone their work by focusing more attention, development and finances on foreign teams as opposed to local clubs. Grassroots football is a huge and essential part of developing the game in any country. The more football pitches you have, the more children you have growing up watching and participating in football, clear career pathways for football players and better facilities and training, will undoubtedly improve football in Singapore. It then acts as a catalyst for everything else. The better the quality of football and improved access, means more exciting players and matches, which therefore increases interest and coverage. 


My Opinion

With no local teams winning the league since 2015, how are local Singaporeans and football fans suppose to have any interest and loyalty to the league? Every club and country needs to have elements of competitiveness and success in order to keep things interesting. So if local teams are getting beaten to the title every year, it hardly inspires confidence in the development of Singapore football. Personally, I feel it is like putting a bandaid over a broken arm. It's trying to manage the problem but isn't actually doing anything to fix it.

Whilst I don't necessarily agree with the privatisation of football clubs, the likes of new club Lion City Sailors (formly Home United)has certainly added some competitiveness and excitement to the league since being bought by billionaire Forrest Li. Li brought in the likes of esteemed football coach Auerlio Vidmar and broke transfer records for the leagues most expensive signings in Diego Lopes from Portugese club, Rio Ave for 1.8 million. But also bringing in experienced defender Jorge Fellipe.

Not long after the appointed ownership was announced that Lion City Sailors had created a Football Academy with plans to support youth development as well as finding future stars for both Sailors and potentially the national team. The club also announced earlier this year that they were developing a new $10 million state-of-the-art training facility which will house both the Senior team as well as academy players. The facility will have a gym, changing rooms, five pitches with two being 11-a-side and three being 7-a-side. But also include which allows for video analytics, sports science and medicine. There will also be study rooms for academic scholars which are part of the Elite Development Program. The faciltiy should be completed by April 2022.


From watching the Sailors this year, they are an incredible side to watch. Fast high intensity attacking football, creative players, skillful dribbling, 34 goals scored in 13 games and entertaining mathces. The side are certainly a breath of fresh air and currently rival first placed Albirex Niigata at the time of writing this. With one point seperating the two sides. Can Lion City Sailors end the foreign teams reign?


But also I think adding more teams to the league and I mean local teams, will also increase competitveness. As well as developing local players and talent, it will hopefully improve the quality of players linking into the Singapore National Team.


Recent News

Last month saw news that there have been apparent conversations held between the Football Association of Singapore and owner of Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'Zim's, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim. The proposal is to have Johor Darul Ta'zim's (JDT) Under-21 squad to compete in the Singapore Premier League.


However, this proposal seems only of benefit to the Malaysian side, as it means the youth team will get more competitive games by playing in a higher quality league, as they are currently just a feeder club to JDT ll (Reserve Side), so they do not play any games other than in the Malaysia President Cup. 


As you can imagine, this proposal has not gone down well with a lot of Singapore football fans. By some it actually seen as an insult that JDT only view their U-21 side as being approporiate for the league.


Fans want the FSA to focus on improving local clubs and facilities, as well as the 'Unleash the Roar' project, which has been formed in order to help the Singapore National Team reach the 2034 World Cup.


Either way. I can't see the situation changing drastically any time soon.

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