All too often the lament from local fans centred on the poor quality and lack of excitement in Singapore football and the S-League. Too often players fought battles in near-empty stadiums, as fans stayed glued to English Premier League action on their television sets.
Nostalgia proved hard to overcome, with many speaking fondly of V Sundramoorthy’s famous bicycle kick, Fandi Ahmad’s silky skills and the joy of the Lions’ first Malaysia Cup win in 14 years in 1994.
The powers that be on both sides of the Causeway finally took heed, as Malaysia welcomed us back to the Malaysian Super League (MSL) after a 17-year absence.
And Singapore called on its 12th man to commit, naming the new outfit the LionsXII.
Some 7,200 red-shirted fans answered the call on January 10, electrifying the Jalan Besar Stadium with their war cries, jeers and horns. And the LionsXII-Kelantan match delivered almost everything a die-hard fan could have asked for – grit, goals and controversy.
Sure, the LionsXII were beaten 2-1 in their opening game, and the bite was missing in attack with just Agu Casmir on the prowl. But the first 11 were certainly not lacking in heart. January 10 was not just a special moment for the fans, and the joy on former national defender Baihakki Khaizan’s face was unmistakable as he celebrated his 33rd-minute header in the King George’s stands, surrounded by ecstatic supporters.
For many of the young footballers like 21-year-old midfielder Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin, witnessing the fervour and celebrity firsthand was just as special. I spoke to Hariss a day after the match, and the vice-captain was clearly disappointed with their loss, apologising to fans who had turned out to support the team.
The LionsXII notched their first point days later, holding out for a 1-1 draw against Kedah at the Darul Aman in Alor Star on Saturday.
Tickets to Tuesday’s home game against Kuala Lumpur are selling fast, and I don’t doubt that the fans will be behind the LionsXII again, roaring their support while the Kallang Wave surfs through the stadium.
But Singapore supporters can sometimes be a fickle lot, especially when their team fails to deliver the goods. Some are still waiting to see how the team performs, before sinking their money and hearts into the LionsXII.
The LionsXII are still a work in progress, and while we hope that they find their feet (and fangs) soon, let’s hope that the fans and fraternity stayed hooked, hungry and always back for more.
It’s going to be a long season, and the 12th man has to be on board.