By Suresh Nair

THREE red cards and six yellow cards in the season opening Community Shield match, before a record 15,840 fans at the new SportsHub, isn’t the best advertisement for the S-League. But it serves as a poignant reminder that poor discipline doesn’t pay.

Albirex Niigata, to their credit, showed an awesome standard of discipline and determination, to come from behind to win the Community Shield by a deserved 2-1 over Tampines Rovers. And I’ll go on record to say that the White Swans (Albirex’s nickname) must be favourites for a second successive clean sweep of the major four titles.

What left a very bitter taste in the mouth was Tampines’ unusual trio sending, Yasir Hanafi (64th minute), Madhu Mohana (88th) and Ismadi Mukhtar (92nd), which reflected on the tall order at hand for German coach Juergen Raab to teach his players the A-B-Cs of elementary sportsmanship if the Stags (Tampines’ nickname) hope to be serious title-contenders.

The three red cards were the primary reason for the Stags’ sensational downfall after Ryutaro Megumi’s 38th-minute 1-0 first half lead. And they must seriously look in the mirror and accept blame rather than wanting to find any other scapegoat.

Rather unfairly, and the crux of this article, is FIFA referee Sukhbir Singh leaving the field to an unwarranted chorus of boos, even a water-bottle was thrown at him and missed his head, when, in my opinion, he was absolutely right in majority of his match-play decisions over 90 minutes.

This is an early season-problem the S-League has to seriously answer by throwing the book at the “poster boy” players from the five-time champions because, in the first match, they showed themselves to be very poor examples of sportsmanship, in resorting to disorderly play.


Nine cards isn’t the right way for a disciplined referee like Sukhbir, ranked in the AFC Elite bracket, to restore law and order in a classic match involving the top two S-League clubs. And if not for his tight control, it would have turned on his head during the early stages. He sensibly resorted to strict words, rather than simply flashing the cards, when Albirex showed their overwhelming dominance in the first half.

So pointing a reckless finger at the referee is gross injustice and it was the famed English television pundit Dez Corkhill of Astro Malaysia, who sent me this SMS after the match: “I hope you can write something to defend Sukhbir Singh. The first two red cards and the penalty re-take were correct decisions, in my opinion. So, too, with the final third card. I thought he handled the opening match creditably well.”

Even former national coach P.N. Sivaji, now based as a football consultant in Myanmar, gave the thumbs-up to Sukhbir. He said: “I’ve watched him for a few years and I will say he wears his heart on his sleeves. He goes in where angels fear to tread.

“By that I sincerely mean he refuses to look the other way when he sees the Laws of the Game (LOG) being abused. I know some senior referees may say he needs to use his initiative and try to avoid trouble. But to put it in a nutshell, I’ll say he has guts. Some people say controversy seems to follow him. I beg to differ. I think he shows a lot of courage and bravery to punish what he perceives as injustice on the field.”


After watching Sunday’s opening match, I wish the S-League clubs show an absolute “zero tolerance” to player-indiscipline and take appropriate action against the errant players who get the yellow and red cards. As professionals, the star-spangled Stags, with majority of national players, must set the highest standards for the younger generation to follow. And definitely not bring any semblance of roughhouse tactics into the field of play.

I know the men-in-black have been advised to be strict with those who persistently infringe the Laws of the Game, much as they will try and educate the players to adopt a “fair play” philosophy. In pre-season preparations, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has decided to crack down on bad-player behaviour, promising a zero tolerance policy to any abuse of officials.

Definitely, as Sukhbir strictly showed, without fear or favour, red cards will be issued to players who insult or use aggressive behaviour towards officials and to players who manhandle officials.

Yes, the clampdown is expected to lead to a welter of dismissals at the start of the new season, but it will definitely bring longer-term rewards in terms of good law and order in and out of the field of play.

Particularly worrying, as seen in many European and South American matches, are scenes of players, coaches and managers surrounding match officials, including physical contact and yelling abuse, that can often be copied in age-group football.

“That mimicry factor, the poor behavior, is usually quickly picked up. We’ve got a responsibility for promoting the game. We want passion and intensity from the players and officials, but there is a firm line, where dignity and respect cannot be compromised,” said Ravi Krishnan, the past president of the Football Referees Association of Singapore (FRAS).

 Perhaps Ismadi Mukhtar’s 92nd minute red card appeared controversial, among a section of the SportsHub crowd and also sparked social-media criticism, as there was no sign of an evident collision of players.


 But in a post-match report to the S-League, it is learnt, Sukhbir will indicate that he was alerted over the referee’s radio-communication set by Assistant Referee (AR) Edwin Lee that he clearly spotted Ismadi striking an opponent when the referee’s back was slightly turned.

As a veteran referee instructor, I would term this as “excellent teamwork” because the four-man referee team is always advised to support one another with the use of the electronic ear-piece communications, wherein they seek quick advice on any infringements.

“In this modern-day refereeing way, we’ve eight eyes watching over the game and if any of the four men-in-black spots an errant player, he can alert the referee, who will make the decision to penalise the player, with a yellow or red card,” says former FAS Referees Committee deputy chairman M. Maniam, a former FIFA referee and instructor. “This is what we can term ‘total support and co-operation’ to maintain good law and order.”

Sukhbir had no choice with Tampines’ skipper Madhu Mohana’s 88th-minute over-the-studs lunge on an Albirex player. Madhu earlier got a yellow card but this latest incident was deemed severe enough to order him out of the field of play instantly with a red card.

Yasir Hanafi’s double yellow-card translated to a red card in the 64th minute after he had been verbally warned by the referee on four other occasions for his careless tackles.

 “I don’t want to say anything about the referee”, said Tampines head coach Juergen Raab after the game. “I will watch the replays to see whether it was the right decision.”

Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga paid tribute to the team’s late counter-attack strategy for Tampines’ last-gasp downfall: “When we attacked them a lot, I think their players felt more stressed and that resulted in more fouls; whether the cards were deserved, I think you can decide for yourself.”


For 33-year-old Sukhbir, who became a referee in 2004, promoted to FIFA status in 2012, he holds his head high as he is ranked as one of the region’s straight-laced referees.

He correctly declined comment after the match, likewise for FAS referee assessor Surindranath Kaseenathan. S-League Match Commissioner Hanizam Aris responded by saying he will submit the post-match report with video evidence, especially of the unrestrained bottle-throwing incident as the four match-officials were walking towards the changing room.

The old adage that “crime doesn’t pay” also applies to every sporting arena and Tampines Rovers must regretfully learn from the nine cards in the opening S-League match, that poor discipline, too, doesn’t earn respect, especially from the younger generation of football fans.

For the men-in-black, the best salute came from the pre-match one-minute silence to mark the recent death of FIFA referee and instructor, 74-year-old Maidin Singah, who passed on Valentine’s Day. It’s the first time at SportsHub to formally honour a departed world-class referee icon.


  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist, a former FAS referee and now an active referee instructor in the S-League.
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