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History of Singapore Football

In so many ways, football is a game of the present. The ball hitting the back of the net, the instinctive roar of the crowd and the sublime instants of skill are primal moments that serve allegories for the game, whilst its stars rise and fall with the zeitgeist.

But it is football's past, its history, which informs the present and propels the future. For Singapore football, the past comes across in equal measure as bugbear and inspiration, tapestry of riches and map of gaps.

Shipping the game to Singapore

From the series of games played in the late 1800s and early 1900s between visiting ships and local selections to the enduring Malaya/Malaysia Cup brought about by the HMS Malaya in 1921 to the emergence of the S.League, football has held on to the imagination of Singaporeans.

The ships hauling luxuries and British troops to Singapore and departing with spice and wood from over South East Asia also brought Pele's proverbial Beautiful Game to the tiny island. 

Empire had gifted the game to Singapore with its irresistible playability and instant adaptability, as it had in South America, Africa and the far reaches of Asia. 

Records tell that the first match of Association Football in Singapore was played in 1889 by British marine engineers at a Tank Road pitch. Regular matches between the British Army's regimental clubs and British civilians, and then later local sporting clubs were a constant feature of Singapore's sporting scene in the late 1800s. Football soon became the choice recreation of most ethnic groups in Singapore. 

SAFA was born

The FAS' predecessor, the Singapore Amateur Football Association (SAFA) planted its roots on August 29 1892 when it was registered with the Registry of Societies. Founded 29 years after the Football Association in England, SAFA lays claim to being the oldest Football Association in Asia. 

That same year, the Association Challenge Cup was played for the first time in Singapore with Marine Engineers taking the inaugural trophy in 1892 and Royal Engineers, a team inspired by the English FA Cup winning army regimental side based in Kent, took home the trophy in the following year. Subsequent winners included Lincolns, Royal Artillery, Fusiliers, Singapore Cricket Club and Harlequins. 

In 1904, such was the demand for competitive matches that SAFA gave birth to the Singapore Football League. The 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment took the first league title in Singapore. 

The Association Challenge Cup and the Singapore Football League were dominated by Europeans, but local ethnic groups soon organised their communal leagues with inter-ethnic friendly matches common and by most reports highly competitive. 

Vague reports mention a friendly match between Johor and Singapore Criket Club (SCC) in 1894, with SCC prevailing 5-1 but details are sketchy. Selangor and Singapore also played a series of friendlies known as 'Classics' from 1901 to 1913, with Singapore winning the first edition. 

The locals, spearheaded by the Singapore Chinese Football Association and the Singapore Malays Football Association teams, began making their mark. Singapore Chinese won the Football League in 1925, while Singapore Malays took their first title in 1934. 

Sino-Malays, an irregular team made of the best players from both associations, raised eyebrows and reportedly caused a wall to be collapsed by excited fans when they beat Australia 4-2 at the Anson Road Stadium. 

Early heroes and the Malaya Cup

The heroes of Tanglin, Anson and the Padang began to emerge. 'Pop' Lim Yong Liang was a skilful striker who later completed the gauntlet of Singapore football by becoming national coach, general secretary of SAFA and then council member with the FAS. 

Other names that tantalised the crowds were the Foong brothers, Mun Fun and Mun Sun, the mercurial inside forward Dolfatah, Mat Noor and footballing Eurasian pioneers Maurice Pennefather and Theodore Leijssius. 

The HMS Malaya visited Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in 1921, and changed the face of football in Malaysia and Singapore. Who knows what dreams of sporting glory flitted briefly across the minds of the men of the Queen Elizabeth class battleship, but they had begun a competition that endures to today. 

The HMS Malaya Cup, later to become the Malaysia Cup, had unconventional beginnings on October 1, 1921. In a match lasting just over an hour in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore took their first Cup with a 2-1 win over Selangor, both teams featuring large numbers of Europeans in their lineups - an early forecast, perhaps, of the Singapore teams in the 21st century which would contain the likes of Mirko Grabovac and Daniel Bennett. 

Four years later in 1925, the Malaya Cup was played for the first time in Singapore and the Lion City duly celebrated by edging Selangor 2-1 at the Anson Road Stadium. 

Over the next two decades, names such as inside forward Chia Keng Hock and full back Abdul Rahman who appeared in nine Malaya Cup finals from 1933 to 1950 began to take center stage. 

Pop Lim, Dolfatah and Pennefather too paraded their skills in the Malaya Cup, with Singapore recording the biggest scoreline in the Cup's history in 1933 when Chia netted a hattrick in an 8-2 destruction of Selangor at Anson. 

Despite the popularity of the Malaya Cup, Singapore's local football scene remained a busy, well-supported affair. Numerous community cups and leagues abounded, while the Government Services League and Business Houses league thrived. 

Postwar football thrives

The Singapore Football League saw a new group of contenders in the 1950s emerge, with the likes of Darul Afiah (back to back champions in '58 and '59), Tiger Standard and Pasir Panjang Rovers contest the league with expatriate teams like the Royal Air Force. 

The Business Houses league attracted the corporate giants: Cold Storage, Guthrie Waugh, Singapore Airlines, Fraser and Neave and Malayan Breweries. A highlight of the league season was the annual Feith Cup, conceived in 1953 and contested between a Business Houses League Selection and invited Malaysian states or sides like Sino-Malays. 

The 1950s were the time of Awang Bakar, a prolific goalscorer who struck up an uncanny partnership with 'Twinkletoes' Chia Boon Leong, rated as one of the best wingers in Asia in those tumultuous times after World War II. 

Center-half Lee Kok Seng was for many, Singapore's greatest ever captain. The sturdy defender strapped the armband with pride for 11 years from the mid-1950s to the 1960s. 

SAFA had become the Football Association of Singapore in 1952, and nine years later, the league was halted. It would not begin again until 1975, when Geylang International ushered in a new era with their first ever title win. 

The Football Association of Singapore kept up the forward-thinking roots of SAFA when they banded together with 11 other nations - Afghanistan, Burma, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea Republic, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam to form the Asian Football Confederation in Manila on May 8, 1954. 

The FAS' longest-serving administrator ran the show in this period. Soh Ghee Soon, president of SAFA from the early 1950s to the FAS in 1963, also served as an AFC Vice-President. 

The Lions of '66

On the international scene, Singapore was the proverbial small fish in a big pond. Yet there were moments which defied those who predicted that the tiny island would never be able to compete with nations boasting much larger populations. 

In 1966, the sultry heat and bustling roads of Bangkok set the scene of Singapore's best football showing in the Asian Games. 

Led by Quah Kim Swee of the illustrious Quah family, the newly independent Singapore beat the likes of hosts Thailand and South Vietnam, before falling to regional powerhouses Burma in the semi-finals. The Lions were then pipped to the bronze medal by Japan 2-0. 

Keeper Wilfred Skinner, flying forward Quah, and midfield maestro Majid Ariff made up the spine of that Asian Games team. Majid, a playmaker who could take the knocks as well as dish them out, became the only Singaporean to represent the Asian All-Stars.

Singapore was kept occupied by other international tournaments such as the Merdeka Tournament, Ovaltine Cup (contested by the long-standing rivals of Singapore and Malaysia), the King's Cup in Thailand and the Merlion Cup, conceived in Singapore in the 1980s and featuring the likes of Australia, Canada, South Korea and regional neighbours. 

The Malaysia Cup and the Kallang Roar 

As Malaysia Cup fever grew in the 1970s, the likes of Dollah Kassim, S Rajagopal, Quah Kim Song, Mohammad Noh became household names. Iconic coach Choo Seng Quee intimidated and inspired players across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in the inimitable style he had cultivated since the 1950s, while inventive lawyer Nadesan Ganesan was one of the most popular bosses of the FAS during his reign from 1976-1982. 

The return of the Malaysia Cup to Singaporean hands in 1977 - after the Lions had last won in the independence year of 1965 brought huge crowds to celebrate the achievement of coach Choo and his players, who defeated Penang 3-2. 

Yet amidst the euphoria of the Kallang Roar, there was some disquiet. Some point to this period as the time where the first seeds of Singapore's footballing decline in the coming decades were planted. 

While the Malaysia Cup's popularity was at an all-time high, match-fixing scandals began to rock the region with alarming regularity. The National Football League also began to suffer from the Malaysia Cup complex, as public attention for the NFL began to be drained away by the Malaysia Cup. Singapore also strained its own talent pools by focussing largely on the Malaysia Cup squad. 

The National Football League was revamped in 1975, with the proliferation and confusion of over 100 league teams streamlined to 30 teams across three divisions. Geylang International was the dominant force of the new NFL, winning the title in its first three years. 

There was a true fillip for youth development in Singapore football though during this era. 1977 also saw the launch of the Lion City Cup, a U-16 tournament which provided the inspiration for FIFA's U-16 World Cup in later years. 

The 1980s brought Singapore football's first modern-day superstar - Fandi Ahmad. The boy from Kaki Bukit turned heads first in the age-group Lion City Cup tournament, won the Malaysia Cup for the Lions in 1980 and proceeded on to a glittering career spanning Singapore, Indonesia, Holland and Malaysia. 

In 1981, Malaysia Cup fans were stunned as the Lions sat out that year's tournament after a misunderstanding between FAS and the Football Association of Malaysia. It would prove to be a forerunner of later events. For the time being though, Singapore were back in the Malaysia Cup the next year. 

Fandi captained Singapore to their first Malaysia Cup win for 14 years with a resounding 4-0 win over Pahang in 1994 - but that year also brought about a paradigm change for Singapore football. 

Out of the Cup - and into the S.League

It was February 1995, mere months after Fandi Ahmad had lifted the Malaysia Cup at Shah Alam Stadium. While the memory of that triumph was still fresh, the FAS was about to take a bold and resounding decision: to withdraw from the Malaysia Cup and league tournaments.

Singapore football's administrators saw that Malaysia Cup participation, as entrenched as it was in local football culture, was restricting the wider development of the game. Singapore needed a league of its own to house a burgeoning population of players and coaches, and while the Malaysia Cup offered many positives, it could not offer that.

It was a daring step - the Malaysia Cup was a lucrative tournament for the Lions, with gate receipts alone bringing in over S$1million per season. Add in merchandising rights and prize money, and the FAS had spurned an S$2million golden goose. 

It was an unpopular step with many fans as well. While some saw the urgent need to develop the local leagues and increase the local talent pool, others yearned for the primal rivalry of the Malaysia Cup. 

The momentous and ultimately essential decision, taken after days and endless nights of contemplation by the likes of then-FAS president Ibrahim Othman and future FAS President Mah Bow Tan, led to another monumental project that had to be undertaken - the S.League. 

In one year - 1995 - the likes of future FAS president Mah, the late FAS adviser R Palakrishnan, the league's first CEO Kwek Leng Joo, Patrick Ang and the club chairmen worked ceaselessly to produce Singapore's first professional league the next year.

Teenage woes have followed the S.League's birthing pains, but the league has endured and developments which are bound to have a dramatic impact on Singapore's footballing future have been sprung - the National Football Academy and the Foreign Talent Scheme, to name but two.

Two significant developments in the late 1990s were Singapore's Tiger Cup win in 1998 - the first success in a major international tournament by any Singapore team - and the legalisation of football betting in 1999. After several years of considered study, the Singapore government and the FAS legalised football betting, which has helped provide a steady flow of funding for the S.League and football development since.

With the National Football Academy consistently turning out talented players and the FAS constantly striving to bring the game to a wider audience especially amongst the under-10 youth and grassroots scenes, Singapore football's future is one that demands watching.

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