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Football in the urban jungle

To Singapore, where two photographers have documented football life in the city-state. Football fan Abdul Aziz Bin Azhar captured photos of football supporters and matches in stadiums, on community pitches and “void decks” amidst the dense urban landscape of Singapore, demonstrating the football passion that exists in the Lion City. Jennifer Koh, a photographer and amateur footballer, took photos of local futsal and amateur football matches, showing the power of football to bring together Singapore’s diverse society.

Football in the urban jungle

To Singapore, where two photographers have documented football life in the city-state. Football fan Abdul Aziz Bin Azhar captured photos of football supporters and matches in stadiums, on community pitches and “void decks” amidst the dense urban landscape of Singapore, demonstrating the passion that exists in the Lion City. Jennifer Koh, a photographer and amateur footballer, took photos of local futsal and amateur football matches, showing the power of football to bring together Singapore’s diverse society.

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Abdul Aziz Bin Azhar

What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with the photos?

The photos feature amateur matches in a variety of locations, fans in the stands at the new National Stadium, and strangers whom I came across having their own kickabouts. I wanted to give people a peak at the Sunday social league scene in Singapore and show a glimpse of the ever-changing urban landscape of Singapore.

You can also find photos of football fans supporting their teams. Though it is uncommon, I wanted to show that there is passion in the stands, coming from groups of fans that feel our football needs a boost in atmosphere. I love the exchange of energy that can be felt between fans and players during a game and I hope other football fans can get off their couches and discover the same feeling at the stadiums.  

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What does #SayNoToASL mean?

The ASL refers to the ASEAN Super League, which was an idea proposed by our very own Football Association of Singapore. It would involve several clubs from the countries of Southeast Asia, competing against one another in a franchise league. 

#SayNoToASL was a protest against this, done by a supporters group of Hougang United. While the FAS was trying to push for this project, supporters of local football rejected the idea. After years of a deteriorating and ailing local league (S-League), it does not make sense to take the best players out and put them all in a separate league. Such a move would divert all the attention and resources away from the S-league, effectively killing it. 

What the FAS should really be spending their time and effort on is to revive and improve our own S-League back to a respectable standard. It didn't help when officials themselves said that the S-League would be a "feeder league" to the ASL, sparking a lot of negative reaction from local supporters. I think it is only logical that a strong domestic league is the key to building a strong national team and a vibrant football culture. And with reports that even the other Southeast Asia nations not being keen on the ASL, it was difficult to understand why the FAS was adamant on it. 

I was very surprised when I took this photo (#SayNoToASL). It is not entirely visible, but the orange light is coming from a "flare" that was set-off in the stands. Flares are obviously banned in Singapore - the supporters group responded that it wasn't a flare, but fire sparklers. The following week, fire sparklers were banned in stadiums. The flare is such an iconic part of ultras culture, but with rules and regulations being so strict in Singapore, few have seen one with their own eyes. So when this scene happened, there was something surreal about it. I felt that this was an interesting and rare picture of supporters taking a brave stand in Singapore. Today, plans for the ASL are dead and buried.

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The Stadiums look very impressive. What is the stadium experience of professional football like in Singapore?

The stadium featured is the new National Stadium, at Kallang. It was opened in June 2014, replacing the old stadium. One of its features is a ceiling with lights that can be customized for display. It is a billion dollar project that truly looks the part.

However as you can see, the stadium is hardly full, due to a combination of decreasing public interest in the sport and increased ticket prices. In a way, I miss the old stadium, which had none of the perks it has today, but was filled with droves of fans. They were loud, they were rowdy, and they were passionate. Our typical stadium experience today can be rather dull. Flares and now sparklers are banned. In response, supporters used bubble guns, inspired by West Ham United. That too, in turn, was banned.  Flags and drums have to go through a tedious process of permits. It is difficult to create an atmosphere when the authorities are not open to initiatives by fans, due to "safety and security" concerns.

How would you describe Singaporean football fans?

Singaporeans are an extremely reserved bunch. In general, people mind their own business and it shows, as football is more of a sit-down-and-watch kind of sport. 

However, this is not to say that we are completely void of match-day atmosphere. There are various groups such as the Brigata Lion City, Hougang Hools and Ultras Eagles who are often seen and heard in the stands. The groups may be small, but the passion shown is just as terrific as anywhere else in the world. The fans featured in the National Stadium photos are that of Exclusinga, a group dedicated to supporting the national team.

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There is a lot of construction in the photos. Is it hard to find space to play football in Singapore with such an urban environment?

Singapore is a very small country with a very dense population of 5.3 million, squeezed into an area smaller than half of London. Free space is hard to find and even when there is space, sooner or later it will be taken away for development. 

This was the case for a group of footballers in the town of Buangkok, playing outside the perimeter of a construction site. They've been playing in that big open field for many years, but that narrow stretch of grass is all that they have left now.

Yes, there are fields and small-sided pitches available for bookings, but only for a price. The fee may not be a big issue, but isn't the greatest thing about football that it can be played anytime and anywhere, for free?

What effect does a lack of space and facilities have on youth football?

Since everything is so compact, football is banned in many public spaces like void decks, open courts and even playgrounds. This is due to the fear of stray balls damaging property or hitting pedestrians.

I feel that Singapore has lost the spirit of spontaneity in football. Sessions must always be planned in advance and be paid for. If our kids are not able to enjoy football at its most raw and simple form, then where is our next generation of football stars going to first fall in love with the game? 

 

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Does this create a conflict between the authorities and football culture?

It is not the best photo, but I really like the picture of the group of kids playing football on the void deck (ground floor) of their block of flats. The sight of a pair of slippers set up as goal posts, the thunderous sound of balls rammed against the walls (with absolute zero consideration for the neighbours) was a huge dose of nostalgia for me. The group had a mix of ages and gender. As usual, the older ones dictate the rules of the game. 

But perhaps the best thing about this shot, is that far in the background, the notorious "No Football" sign watches on. And it is completely ignored. It reminded me that kids really do not care; they just want to play. The kids were slightly paranoid about my presence. However, after introducing myself and assuring them that I wasn't a spy from the authorities, they even invited me to play. 

This came at a time when there was a bit of discussion in the media as to how far certain town councils go in order to prevent people from playing football in such spaces. "No Football" signs are everywhere in Singapore's public spaces, but some places even have railings or spikes installed on the walls. Such hard measures by town councils are usually a reaction to complaints by fellow residents. It made me wonder if we as a community have really become so intolerant and only see things as black or white. 

I used to play at the void decks everyday during my childhood. I knew we were nuisances because of the noise and the stains on the walls but neighbours merely advised us to keep our volume down and be aware of passers-by. They never banned us from playing. There was an unspoken element of 'give and take'. 

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Why is football so important for Singapore and Singaporeans?

Life is seen as very stressful in Singapore. Students go through an education system that heavily focuses on grades and exams, working hours are long, and cost of living is always rising. I believe football gives many a sense of escapism from the pressures of modern society. Also, in a culture where pace of life is so fast and hectic, people are generally more motivated by individual gains and rarely think about the collective community. 

Yet, football still remains one of the few things that can gather thousands of people to unite through a common cause and foster a national spirit. I believe that as a young nation still forging its national identity, football can be a helpful tool.

What role does football play in Singaporean society? Does it bring people together?

It does, but not in a large scale as compared to the past. Football used to be massively popular and reached its peak in the 80s to early 90s, when we used to compete in our neighbour Malaysia's league. It had a significant role to play in nation building as Singapore was finding its own identity after separation and independence from Malaysia in 1965. The sense of rivalry and national pride at stake when competing in the Malaysian league brought citizens together. 

We are also able to bond through football. Weekend social league players often bring along their partners, spouses and children to their matches. It is a good opportunity for friends and families to get together while supporting their loved ones. You get to meet people of different ages, races, nationalities and more, and this is an important theme for life in Singapore: the amalgamation of multiple races and cultures. 

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What is the future for Singaporean football?

Today, it is fair to say that Singaporeans have sort of fallen out of love with the game, although European football remains popular. The general public has grown disillusioned and rather cynical about our football, due to a perceived dip in standards and poor administration. 

However I feel that Singapore football is now a sleeping giant. Deep down people still want it to be successful. But in order for us to move forward, we have to manage our expectations and not always compare it to European football. I remain optimistic that it only takes a spark and a few right moves to get people inspired again. 

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Jennifer Koh

What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with the photos?

I wanted to document passion for football, outside any formal structure. A lot of my childhood memories were associated with informal kickabouts in the neighbourhood, particularly under void decks (which are common spaces in Singapore). Void deck football has been made illegal (with an iconic prohibitive sign on most void deck walls) due to concerns for public safety and the image of public cleanliness (ball marks are inevitably left on the wall from void deck football). One of the issues in recent years has been the commodification of recreational spaces; for instance, people have to pay to rent a futsal pitch. This marginalises and limits "the play space" for those who cannot afford to pay to play such as children, low-wage workers etc. 

I tried to capture people playing in public spaces, as a way of bypassing the structure of commodification. The government has also introduced some futsal courts around many neighbourhoods in Singapore, as a cost-free alternative to void deck football. But the walls in these courts are far shorter and the game much more straightforward without the added option of dribbling past slender walls and vertical pipes in the void deck version. It's also not weather proof (for that you have to pay!).

Amateur Sunday League football also shows how people sustain their passion for football through community competitions. It's an outlet and platform bringing together people from diverse professions, seeking fellow players on a Sunday, outside the routine of work.

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Why is football so important for Singapore and Singaporeans?

The one sport that captures the Singaporean public imagination is football. Part of this has to do with the consumption of modern day football, particularly the Premier League and the World Cup, through cable television and our media channels. The sport that you see schoolboys playing during recess is football. 

The British Empire brought the sport to local shores and was the sport of choice recreationally and competitively among ethnic groups and with neighbours in the South East Asia region. Of primary importance was the Malaysia Cup (Singapore was part of Malaya, which is now Singapore and Malaysia) and a common sporting competition was the touchstone of friendly rivalry, pitting the independent nation state of Singapore against the various states in Malaysia. Singaporeans' passion for football was also propelled by the rise of a sporting hero in the 1980s - Fandi Ahmad, who played professionally in Singapore, Indonesia, Holland and Malaysia. He was a legendary striker whose career spanned nearly 20 years (late 1970s to late 1990s). Fandi was as important to Singapore as Pele was to Brazil, Lineker to England, van Basten to Holland. Since his retirement, we have not had such a football icon take his place.

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What role does football play in Singaporean society? Does it bring people together?

Football brings together people from different walks of life, nationalities/ethnicities and ages, neighbours, co-workers, ex-schoolmates, strangers. For example, there's an online platform called Stranger Soccer that allows you to sign up for football and futsal matches with other strangers.  In a recent documentary produced by a Singaporean indie filmmaker, he documents foreign workers playing together on a day off, with some Singaporeans joining in too.  

What does football mean to you?

Football has always been a big part of my life, since the age of 11. I think it started with the World Cup in Brazil. Football is poetry, a song composed by eleven players, sung by fans from the wind-flung terraces of old to today's sponsor-decked modern stadia. It is romance, sport, friendship, politics and history all rolled into one moneymaking, head-spinning, heart-turning machine. Football has taken me past male chauvinism and into the fray as a racial minority; to institutional teams belonging to schools I did and did not attend, from void decks in my home country to England and past the fields of France and the Spanish coast.

Since my hopes of playing for the national team have vapourised, I’m intrigued by the prospect of coaching and managing my own team one day. That would take me beyond a deskbound Football Manager obsession, which has never let me go since the flashing text bar game of the mid 90s took my school days by storm.

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What is the future for Singaporean football?

A lot of money has been pumped into Singaporean football and once upon a time the country had set a goal of reaching the World Cup by 2010. That has not been realised and we are not any closer to realising it now. Sadly, on the competitive front, the country faces problems identifying and blooding national talent due to the way scholastic achievements and better paying jobs have won over a doggedly pragmatic Singaporean population.

The local league has brought in some foreign talent, but the overall quality of the league still doesn't rise to a level that attracts mass viewership and support. Most football fans would sooner identify with a stadium or football town in England than with any of the local teams. But come evening time and weekends, when you wander the commercial futsal grounds with their well-maintained artificial turfs and hypnotic soundtracks, you find groups of friends playing together in intense 60-minute timeslots. It's then that you realise, for all the mediocrity of professional football, amateur football in Singapore is well and alive!

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