Longing for grassroots football scene to return post-Covid-19, warts and all

Singapore enjoyed a thriving grassroots and social football scene pre-Covid-19 days.

In fact, I resigned as an assistant teacher in 2010 to earn a living in a field that I am truly passionate about. I first dabbled in coaching, but I wasn’t cut out for it.

At the same time, I was managing a grassroots football team in a local league. One day, I received a call from the owner of the league, Azahari Aziz. He offered me the role of operations manager in his company, D2D Sports. The pay wasn’t great, but I couldn’t say no. I climbed the ladder and was later made executive director of the company.

As I spent time in the business, I realised that besides football, 5-a-side football was also a hit in the republic. The 5-a-side is often referred to as futsal, but it’s not futsal, as 5-a-side is played on artificial turf that is smaller than a futsal court.

There were at least seven different football leagues, competed by some 200 teams. Matches were mostly held over the weekends during the pre-Covid-19 days.

These weekend matches were primarily played at secondary school fields. League operators would request to use these fields from the Singapore Sports Council, but the fields would usually be available only at off-peak hours (3pm on a Saturday, and 11am, 1pm or 3pm on a Sunday).

To get a slot during peak hours, (5pm on Saturdays and 9am on a Sunday), one would need to log on to the ActiveSG application or website on Friday to book a field. The slots for the fields would be snapped up as soon as bookings were opened, so it really depended on your Internet speed and your quick booking skills to get the preferred slots.

In theory, league operators are not allowed to book fields at peak slots as they are reserved for public use.

However, it is a flawed theory as it is unlikely that a member of the public would want to go through the hassle of booking a slot and then look for an opponent and referee. Very rarely, a member of the public would have all these contacts readily available.

Besides league operators, individuals would also organise friendly matches. Their presence in the market further intensified the competition for slots.

When it came to slots, the type of pitch booked was important. Artificial turfs were very popular. Grass fields were susceptible to cancellations if it rained and were likely to have holes and bumps.

The other consideration was the location of the pitch.

The pitches in the central and eastern regions were the most popular, while those in the west were the least desirable. With all these added considerations, the already stiff competition for slots became stiffer.

Private artificial turf fields cost a lot more to book and were unlikely to be available as they were commonly used by a plethora of football academies in this country.

Most league operators here served local Singaporean teams; only two operators served expatriate teams. These two groups very rarely mingled due to cultural differences.

Expatriate teams indulged in banter and mind games on the pitch, they are stronger physically, and in the tackle. These were commonly misconstrued by local teams as being disrespectful, rude, and playing “dirty”.

There was also the underlying tensions between locals and expatriates to contend with, as there had been a growing narrative that expatriates were stealing jobs from the locals. There was also unhappiness over how easy it was for expatriates to gain citizenship, and that they earned more than the average Singaporean.

These were among the reasons why these two groups generally stayed apart. However, the difference between the two was that an expatriate team was likely to be loyal to a league and was willing to pay top dollar for a good experience, whereas a local team would likely hop to other leagues if they received a better offer, or could pay less, expecting the sun and the moon for a smaller fee.

An expatriate team was also likely to respect the rules and regulations, and at least, see out the season, or pay the penalty for a premature withdrawal. A local team, on the other hand, would create a fuss, or even leave the league prematurely without paying their dues, especially if disciplinary action were taken against them.

Local teams were likely to take part in a league if it offered cash prizes and other peripheral services, like photography and videography. An expatriate team was less likely to be concerned about all of that as their focus was on a smooth competitive playing experience on good field surfaces without any major trouble.

Unfortunately, the majority of the league operators were not backed legally as the legal charges were too high, so there is nothing to guard them against teams that refused to pay their match fees or left the league without paying the penalty for premature withdrawal.

A team is typically charged S$120-S$150 per match on an artificial turf field, and between S$80 and S$100 per match on a normal grass field. These match fees included the cost for a single referee.

For matches on private artificial fields, a team is charged S$160 or more, while for matches on weeknights, a team is charged between S$240 and S$270 per match, with one referee.

In matches with assistant referees, the match fees would increase by another S$70. The profit margin, per match, would be between S$100 and S$160, which wasn’t much. As such, an operator would need a good number of teams to make a decent living.

However, this was where a league operator is faced with a conundrum. Some operators are not concerned at all about the type of teams they attract, while others are keen to weed out teams that are known to play the game in bad spirit.

All these leagues are privately run and not under the purview of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).

A league can be an affiliate of the FAS if they paid a nominal fee of about S$140, but operators are reluctant to go down that path as they would then be forced to accept greenhorn FAS referees for their league matches, who run the risk of losing control of a match.

FAS has an amateur league of its own, called the National Football League (NFL) and they put their focus and resources on grassroots football in that one league while ignoring all those that run privately.

As such, this industry is a dog-eat-dog world, each man fending for himself, and unlikely to find allies.

The 5-a-side leagues were mostly organised on weeknights (between 8pm and 10pm) and each team was charged between S$80 and S$90 with a referee in tow. The rest of the dynamics is similar to 11-a-side football matches.

Most of these leagues are a one, or two-man operation. For some, it is a passion project, and this becomes a source of additional income. For others like myself, it is a full-fledged business and we do need to have a second, or third source of income to supplement our passion.

It is very unlikely to find someone that is employed with a set monthly income in this industry as most who are involved or employed, are on a part-time, freelance, or profit-sharing basis.

I wonder if the same scenario is found in Malaysia. And I also wonder if the football industry will change, once some form of normalcy is achieved.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.

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