Into the Lions Den

photo 2 (3)Every year Dave Hartrick and I have the same conversation around Christmas time. “Stu – you going to stop travelling next year?” He would ask me and I would always reply with honesty, “that’s the plan…”. And then every year my travel boundaries are pushed wider, not always through choice…well, OK perhaps with a slight nudge in the work sense.

Copenhagen, Stockholm, Munich, Zürich, Paris. That’s been my regular monthly circuit over the past few years with an occasional stop in New York. Add in the occasional trip overseas with Mr Last et al and all of a sudden I’ve raked up more air miles than Judith Chalmers (kids – ask your Dad). But 2014 had started in line with my annual affirmation. Trips had been restricted to these shores. Was I happy? Of course (that’s one just in case CMF is reading).

But then gears shifted at work and all of a sudden I was being asked to visit new far-flung places for work. Nottingham, Worksop and Amsterdam didn’t really get me too excited but Gibraltar, Singapore, Hong Kong and China gave me the opportunity to travel somewhere new. Was there any football on in these places? The thought never crossed my mind, honestly. The fact that the trip to Hong Kong co-incided with the final round of games in their domestic league was pure luck, I’m sure you’d agree.

Last week I was in Gibraltar, watching one of the lowest supported leagues in the world. This week it was Singapore. Travelling 12 hours to the other side of the world wasn’t 100% fun but a stop in between in Dubai where I met up with Ben in the Emirates lounge helped dull the pain of life 40,000ft above the earth.

photo 3 (3)When I did my search for “Things to do in Singapore”, would you believe it that number two on the list after a trip to The Long Bar in Raffles Hotel was a trip to watch the Singapore Lions. The meant the football team, right? And not the big cats in the Singapore Night Safari? I mean who’d want to see that?

Football in Singapore is massive. Everyone you meet knows more about the Premier League than your average English fan and TV coverage is almost wall to wall. There are shops in the dozens of shopping malls on Orchard Road that are temples to football shirts (one shop Football@313 has over 500 different club/country shirts) and Saturday night prime time TV revolves around live games from the Premier League.

But what about the domestic game? Well this is where it gets a bit confusing. Singapore has a domestic league but it’s biggest team, Singapore Lions XII (slightly unfair that they play with 12 players) actually play in the Malaysian Super League. In fact the Lions are the current champions of the said league. It’s no different to the situation in Wales with Swansea City and Cardiff City playing in the English leagues whilst Port Talbot and Llanelli play in the Welsh League.

photo 2 (6)A visit to watch the Lions play had come highly recommended and as luck would have it they were at home, just a few hours after my arrival in Singapore. Jet lag and “orientation” aren’t that important really so after unpacking, quick swim and a $18 beer I was in a taxi heading for the Jalan Besar Stadium, home not only to Singapore Lions but also to most clubs in the Singapore league (a bit like Gibraltar, Malta and Andorra).

The XII, so I was told by my Man Utd shirt-wearing taxi driver was a mistype, nor was it a method to gain a sneaky competitive advantage.  It represented the fans, who were the 12th member of the team.  “Remember – For Country, For Fans. For Passion, For Football” he told me as I slipped him a $2 for my taxi ride (taxi’s are cheap here, alcohol and food is not).  The Lions Den, as it is referred to wasn’t quite full as I had been led to believe.  In their last game against Kelantan had been an almost sell-out and you can see why.  With no competing games on TV, and tickets starting from just $3 it was a no-brainer.

photo 3 (6)The stadium itself was a three-sided affair with one main two tier stand with a curving roof a-la the one at Brighton & Hove Albion, with two temporary structures completing the 8,000 all seater ground.  There are plans afoot to move next season to the new 55,000 National Stadium on the waterfront which has a retractable roof.  The club has a number of supporters groups including the King George Hooligans.  Alas, the term “hooligans” appeared to be lost in translation in Singapore as apart from some tactical booing of the away team, they cheered, sang and Mexican waved with the rest of the crowd.

Apparently there was supposed to be some rivalry with the opposition, PKNS who they had never beaten away from Singapore.  They had made a very polite banner for the hundred or so travelling supporters welcoming them to Singapore and gave them a little clap prior to the game.

The question before the game was about the standard of football.  Whereas the football last week in Gibraltar had been almost at my level, I had no reference point for Singapore.  With over 5 million inhabitants, they had a bigger “pool” of potential players than countries such as Ireland, Norway and Uruguay but then again they had never featured on the world footballing stage, coming from a region where the likes of Bahrain and Qatar had come so close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup.

Singapore Lions XII 2 PKNS 1 – Jalan Besar Stadium – Sunday 22nd March 2014
The answer to the above question was that it was a very good standard indeed.  The game was played at pace on an artificial pitch which allowed the home side to zip the ball around.  The home fans, almost filling the stand on the far side as well as the lower tier of the main stand made a din throughout the first half, the noise resembling a schoolboy international with rhythmic clapping, syncronised chanting and pantomime booing with PKNS had the ball.  In the end it was two quality goals that sent the Man Utd shirted fans happy into the night.

SAM_1389It was somewhat against the run of play that the away side took the lead on the half-hour mark as Faiz was given far too much space in the area to pick his spot.  The Lions simply upped the tempo and just before the break their key man, midfielder Zulfhami curled a free-kick over the wall and into the top corner of the net.  Two minutes later he had exactly the same opportunity but on this occasion his effort struck the crossbar.

Half time saw everyone in the media area whip out a rice dish out of their bags.  I think at some point I had missed getting my little goodie bag although seeing what appeared to be something squirming around in the container of the chap next to me (introducing himself as “Joe Geordie” for his love of the Toon) I wasn’t too fussed.  Lions won the second half hands down, dominating from the first minute and it was somewhat surprising that they only scored one further goal, an excellent strike from Faris that no keeper in the world would have got their hands to the ball.

photo 2 (7)With ten minutes to go I started to flag.  Two long-haul flights in less than 24 hours, eight time zones away and an incessant Mexican wave all took their toll on me. I headed out of the stadium and onto the subway for the short ride home.  Singapore gets football and the locals have a team that they could be proud of.  My only comment would be they need to look up the meaning of the word “hooligan”.

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