How Is Football A Viable Career In Singapore?

With the 2016 S-League season kicking off in less than a month on 13 February, much has been written about the hype and excitement for the new season after LionsXII were unceremoniously booted out of the Malaysian Super League. This resulted in the club being disbanded and left the entire squad of players and club officials scrambling to look for new teams and jobs. This whole saga leaves a big question to answer – is football a viable career option in Singapore?

Like many who played football, I dreamt of playing the game professionally. All the fame and glamour of being a footballer. I am though glad that I never had the attributes to make the cut. Even at the average amateur level. Ha!

I’m largely skeptical of football as a career. Here’s why.

Career length

How long can you play football competitively? Let’s assume you break into the first team and get offered a first team contract at 20 years of age. And let’s assume you are a model professional and you play well enough for clubs to keep you on their payroll till you’re 35. Then what next? That really is the end of your sporting career, isn’t it? Of course, you can attend courses, pick up other professional skills before you retire. That would mean you are making a career change at 35. Will you be ready for it? Are you willing to start from nought?

Some may argue that you can stay on in the game as a coach or manager or something.  There are only that many professional clubs in Singapore. Say ten? Let’s include the semi-professional clubs and that’s if they are even paying a reasonable salary for coaches (since they are semi-pro club). How many coaching positions are there to go around? A squad will have maybe 23 players and there will be maybe at most up to ten coaches including the manager. (Seriously I have no idea!) The point is, coaches have a way longer career length. So you have many retired players looking to fill the few coaching positions in the few local clubs. What are your chances?

Getting a club (finding a job)

The earlier scenario applies only if you have made the grade and have built a reasonable reputation over the years and have largely avoided major injuries. Here’s what happens if you hit any of these three:

  1. You don’t make the grade.
    Oh well, you put your bloody best effort into football. You totally ignored your textbooks and flunk your exams because you want to become a professional footballer and maybe one day play in the Barclays Premier League. Then you fail to secure a senior contract. Because you just don’t cut it. Just not good enough for the club to be paying you a couple of thousand dollars more each month. How many really make the grade each year? Where do you go from this point?
  2. Your reputation is suspect.
    Okay, you made the cut. Played a couple of seasons as a professional footballer. But you are average. Worse still, you are injury prone. Given that local players are often on a one, two year contract, how likely would a club re-contract you if there are better players coming through (who like you, made the jump into professional football)? And if you are often “AWOL” through injuries, why would a club continue to pay you especially if you are average? How much of a job security is that?
  3. You suffer a major injury.
    Now, say you made the cut. You are above average. But now you are in your late 20s and you suffer a major injury. At that age, it’s likely to affect your play, mobility and probably curtail your career. Clubs would probably rehabilitate you through your injury since you are contracted. But what happens if you suffer the injury nearing the end of your playing contract? I’m not sure how professional players are covered but I’m pretty sure even if you become a free agent and have recovered by then, clubs will have second thoughts signing a player entering his 30s and one who had just recovered from a major injury.

Earnings

An average S-League player earns about SG$3,000 a month. That is not taking into consideration all the potential job hazards mentioned above. So maybe you hit the heights and are among the best players in Singapore and you get a shot in some foreign league raking in up to $20,000 a month. Or become a world-beater and play in the top European leagues. Oh well, how likely? As far as I know only Fandi Ahmad has done it. And seriously, how many of our local boys are really top notch in recent years? I can name on one hand the number of players who are a cut above the rest.

Safuwan Baharudin, Izwan Mahbud, Haris Harun. That’s about it. Of an entire generation, only a handful can count on their reputation for future earnings. Be it endorsements or whatever. Unless you are a household name, your chances of landing some paid gig because you are a Lim Ah Beng, ex-professional footballer, is as good as zero.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an avid fan. I love my football, I am a self-proclaimed football fanatic but these are the hard truths.

Singapore is way too small a market to make a viable living out of football. The money in football will only come in if every match is filled with tens of thousands of spectators. That’s when the big companies will pump the money in and that equates to a more profitable football career (given how uncertain and short one’s football career may be). Until some marketing genius manages to bring in the crowd, sold on some fascinating gimmick, the S-League is doomed to continue to stutter or fail and in turn, sound the death knell for the professional footballer in Singapore.

When I’m not at work, I’m into the arts, music and history. Football’s my other big love so if I’m not around museums and galleries, I’m probably on the field. If I still can’t be found, I’m having my me time.

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