By Suresh Nair
You don’t need to play with numbers and know 4-2-4 or a 4-3-3 or a 5-3-2 in football. The simplest of formula is: Football = Passion & Leadership.
It took a passionate parliamentarian, who supports Manchester United, to raise this matter in the highest chambers of Parliament with the endearing question: Where did it go wrong for FAS?
Sports247 was given an exclusive copy of Nominated Member of Parliament Ganesh Rajaram’s full text and for the first time, it is published, with no punches pulled, when he raised the matter with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).
Ganesh traced back to his childhood days in the 1970s when he met the first of Singapore’s icon, lawyer Nadesan Ganesan, and later the second stalwart, Minister Mah Bow Tan, who in the late 1990s, advocated an unprecedented dream of Project “Goal 2010”.
For the record, Ganesh is currently General Manager, Asia at FreemantleMedia International. He previously worked with Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp after graduating on an Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School Executive Education and studied MA International Communications at Macquarie University. Prior to that, as a die-hard Rafflesian, he studied political science at University of Calgary.
Here’s the unedited version of Ganesh Rajaram’s boldest-ever football speech in Parliament:
FOOTBALL: PASSION AND LEADERSHIP
- Madam Speaker, Singapore football has been hogging the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In October last year, we sank to our lowest ever world ranking of 171. Currently, we are at 164; and things don’t look like they are going to get better anytime soon. The S-League is dying a slow and painful death. It was not so long ago that 60,000 Singaporeans were cheering on the national football team. Where did it all go wrong?
- As a fan and a journalist who covered the sport in the 1990s, I would like to suggest the reasons for this sad state of affairs: A lack of leadership and a lack of passion.
GLORY DAYS: 1970s & 1990s
- Madam Speaker, I think most of us in this House are familiar with the glory days of Singapore football. The 1970s and the 1990s were the golden era of local football, when the National Stadium was packed to the rafters and families were glued to their television sets for the ‘live’ telecasts.
We idolised the players – legends like Quah Kim Song, the late DollahKassim, Mohammed Noor, Eric Paine, Fandi Ahmad, and V. Sundramoorthy. To me, however, both these periods owe their success primarily to two men. In the 70s and 80s, it was the late Mr Nadesab Ganesan and in the 90s, it was former Cabinet Minister Mr Mah Bow Tan. I had the privilege of knowing both these gentlemen. Let me give you an insight into why they succeeded.
- I first met Mr Ganesan in the early 1970s when I was about six or seven. Mr Ganesan was a family friend and would be a frequent visitor. I used to look forward to his visits as he was fiercely passionate about football, and would tell me endless stories about my local football idols.
- He was Chairman of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) from 1974 to 1981. He was credited with numerous achievements, including winning the Malaysia Cup in 1977 and 1980, starting the Lion City Cup tournament for the under 16s, inspiring the Kallang Roar at the National Stadium by building a national team that was feared in the region.
- Mr Ganesan was a full-time lawyer but was at the Jalan Besar Stadium everyday to watch the Lions train. He was omnipresent – always available to speak to anyone, from players to coaches and staff at the FAS. His leadership style was down to earth and accessible – and he created an air of camaraderie and family at the FAS.
- And because his passion was so infectious, it caught on – creating a culture of volunteerism and selflessness that resulted in one of the most successful periods for local football.
- The other more recent golden era of local football was the 1990s, when Singapore won the Malaysia Cup in 1994. We saw the birth of the S-League in 1996, and our famous Tiger Cup win in 1998. All of this was under the leadership of one individual – former Cabinet Minister Mr Mah Bow Tan, who oversaw the FAS for a period of 13 years – from 1991 to 2004.
- I covered the 1993 and 94 Malaysia Cup campaigns as well as the inaugural S-League season of 1996 as a journalist. I remember Minister Mah as a quiet, stern leader – quite the opposite of Mr Ganesan in terms of personality. But Mr Mah was a leader who got things done.
He brought a sense of purpose, discipline and work ethic to the FAS. And despite his hectic ministerial duties, he would be present at most matches and training sessions. He ran a very tight ship, and this flowed through right down to the administration of the S-League and its clubs. Things worked like clockwork – schedules, fixtures, press briefings.
When Mr Mah briefed the media about the setting up of the S-League, there was a steely determination and resolve that said, we’ll make this work. And he did! It was an unenviable task during a difficult time – would we be able to replicate the success of the Malaysia Cup with our own fledgling league?
But after just a year of planning, Mr Mah oversaw the launch of the S-League in 1996. The 1996 S-League grand final was played at the National Stadium between Geylang International and SAFFC in front of 30,000 fans! Against all odds, Mr Mah had delivered on his promise, and our very own professional football league was born.
- So why have we come to where we are today? To me, there is a dearth of strong passionate personalities like the late Mr Ganesan and Mr Mah in local football.
- What we don’t need is fair weather leadership. Over the last few years, we’ve seen members of the FAS leadership team donning their jerseys and attending only big ticket matches, but they are nowhere to be seen during training sessions or regular games.
We’ve seen high-ranking FAS officials making trips across the globe and taking selfies with football superstars while the S-League is floundering. We’ve seen S League clubs sign on washed up, has been, ill disciplined foreign stars – garnering lots of press – but little else.
And these same clubs having financial woes when they realised they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. They would do well to remember the likes of Mohammed Khakpour and Hamid Reza Estili, Iranian footballers who were foreign signings in the early days of the S-League. They were unknowns who became household names because of their dedication and quality. Both went on to play in the 1998 World Cup for Iran.
- Madam Speaker, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) gears up for its first-ever open elections later this year. My hope is that real leaders with real passion and no hidden agendas step forward, and get the game back to where it should be.
As a passionate sports journalist like NMP Ganesh Rajaram, let me repeat: You don’t need the numbers game of 4-2-4 or a 4-3-3- or a 5-3-2 in football.
The simplest of formula for Singapore football is: Football = Passion & Leadership.
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-born journalist who has covered football for over three decades. He was nominated on the first board of Tampines Rovers, with Minister Mah Bow Tan, when the S-League started in 1996.