|Rick Olivares with Aleksandar Duric
“We didn’t know anything about your team” said Singapore’s Aleksandar Duric about the Philippine Men’s Football National Team that snuck under the radar during the 2010 Suzuki Cup.
In the group stages of that tournament, the Philippines drew 1-1 with Singapore when Chris Greatwich cancelled out Duric’s early strike with a late goal. And one match later, the Filipinos later collected its biggest win of its footballing history when it shocked defending champions Vietnam 2-0 propelling the game to dizzying heights back in the Philippines.
The Azkals advanced to the semis where it ran out of steam against Indonesia, while Singapore never got out of the group stages of the biennial tournament.
The Lions, as Singapore’s team is nicknamed, gained a measure of revenge when they defeated the Azkals, 2-0, in a friendly in late 2011 at the Jalan Besar Stadium. Duric scored the second of his country’s goals.
Duric’s Filipina maid would tell stories about the growth of football in the Philippines. “It was amazing to hear her stories,” expressed the Lions’ striker. “It’s good for the game and competition around the region. The Philippines’ success will force everyone to evaluate where they are. During that friendly, I asked her if she would cheer for me and Singapore and she said she loved my family but she only supported the Philippines. After the game, she said that the Filipinos in her section talked about me. ‘You’re probably the most famous Singaporean in the Philippines outside Lee Kuan Yew.’ I had a laugh and I take that as a compliment. Your national team taught not just us in Singapore but everyone else in the region to respect you,” pointed out Duric.
He admitted to following not only the Azkals but also the UFL and the PBA through the Internet. “The passion being shown for sports is good. I do not like politics as I feel it is divisive. Sports can be a unifying factor when played the right way.”
Duric, the Straits Times’ Fabius Chen, and ESPN Star’s Gabriel Tan admitted to me that the Singaporean S League is going through some difficult times as attendance has greatly dwindled. During its formation in the 1990s, the stadia around the small island state were packed with fans. Nowadays, they are lucky to see a couple of hundred faces.
The glamour of European football, staid matches, on-field brawls, the lack of a promotion-relegation system and the youth moving away from sports to other pursuits like online gaming, the Internet and the such have eroded support for the clubs. The interest is there for the national team but that is a finicky statement.
When English side Liverpool came over for an exhibition match in 2009, over 65,000 fans packed the old Kallang National Stadium. However the great majority wore Liverpool kits. “This is just so wrong,” Duric recounted his wife’s words to him upon seeing he massive crowd. “The crowd also cheered for us but we were like visitors in our own stadium.”
In an article for CNN in 2010, John Davidson interviewed sponsorship expert Kenny Hau, regional business director of the marketing agency ESP, who said the rise of the English Premier League and Singapore’s economic prosperity have combined to hurt the S-League.
“The advent of the pay-TV business model, in conjunction with increased affluence and sophistication of Singaporeans, has contributed to a decline in interest in local football,” said Huang. “Singaporeans now enjoy numerous lifestyle and entertainment choices that were not available even 15 to 20 years ago and any football fix they may have will be fully met in the air-conditioning of their living rooms or pubs by viewing the global superstars that are Premier League players and their globally recognized club brands.”
The participation of UFL side Loyola in the 2012 RHB Singapore Cup, Duric believes, is a masterstroke for the organizers. The fact the best attended matches of the tournament so far have been the matches by Loyola have not been lost on him. Duric even watched the first-round match between the Sparks and Geylang United in the bleachers section of the Jalan Besar Stadium. For the first leg match of the quarterfinals between Myanmar’s Kanbawza and Loyola, Duric watched the game from his home.
However, the current Tampines Rovers striker also noted that the success not just of Loyola but also foreign teams in the tournament is cause for concern. “You saw the passion of the Myanmar fans.” They watch in huge numbers. While when Geylang played Loyola, Geylang was lucky to even have 50 supporters in the crowd.”
The current problems of the S League is something that Loyola’s Randy Roxas said bears watching. Said Roxas, “What could give problems to the S League is something that could later hurt the UFL. We should learn from them.”
Ironically, the boot is on the other foot now. “The play is much better,” Duric observed of Loyola. “They are playing disciplined football. Clubs in Singapore should also learn from them. Even the league should learn from what is being done right in the Philippines.”