(Headline photo: AFC General Secretary Windsor John (middle) poses with the FAS Council after the press conference following a meeting between AFC and FAS. – Photo Credit: Football Association of Singapore)
A new chapter in Singapore’s football diplomatic relations to Asia was written on 22 June when Windsor John became the highest-ranking official from the governing Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to visit the city-state in seven years.
It comes two months after the election of the new Football Association of Singapore (FAS) leadership, following Zainudin Nordin’s relinquishing of the presidency at the end of his third two-year term in December 2016.
The two-hour meeting between the AFC general secretary John and the FAS Council, where all the key leaders attended, signified the thawing of relations between the two football bodies after six years of cold high-level interaction during Zainudin’s reign.
Zainudin’s Disdain of the AFC
The former parliamentarian clearly did not put the continent’s governing body in high regard during his presidency as he regularly bypassed the AFC with his attempts to build direct links between FAS and Europe during his time in office.
It culminated with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between FAS and the French Football Federation, which saw Adam Swandi spend two years with French league side Metz FC and the national Under-23 side playing a friendly against the French Under-21s at the Reunion Islands.
Zainudin’s first of many disengagements with the AFC came early in his presidency in 2010 when he dissuaded FAS from continuing its participation in the AFC Champions League (when qualifying for the group stage was not as difficult as it is today) for a few years.
His context (or rather, excuse) was financial, given that Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC) spent extensively at a loss on the first team in the group stage campaigns in 2009 and 2010.
Going It Alone with LionsXII and Asean Super League
Zainudin then started a couple of notable initiatives that have now obliterated into history. The first was the launch of Singaporean representative side LionsXII in 2012 to compete in Malaysian club competition for the first time in 18 years.
It only lasted as long as the four-year MOU between FAS and Football Association of Malaysia, while S.League club football was stunted during the LionsXII era. With the latter deciding not to extend LionsXII’s participation in Malaysia beyond 2015, his dream of continuing that agenda was extinguished.
The second – and more significant – initiative was the attempt to revive and launch the Asean Super League (ASL), which the AFC general-secretary said would not happen in the post-meeting interview. An idea that was initially started in the early 2000s as part of a tender bid for Singapore’s Sports Hub project, Zainudin tried to reinvigorate interest in it during his FAS presidency.
With little confidence that the domestic game would be able to stand on its own two feet, he clearly felt having the ASL, which would be modelled after the Asean Basketball League had it been implemented, would provide a leg up for Singapore football – and to an extent the game as a whole in the region.
His obsessive preoccupation with the ASL, especially following the demise of LionsXII, saw European experts engaged to speak to other Southeast Asian member associations on the merits of the proposed league on the sidelines of regional meetings.
Despite his best efforts, the rest of Southeast Asia were cold to the ASL concept throughout. Established domestic leagues in the stronger nations made it a non-starter for them, while the minnows could not see the benefits they would get in such a league, competitive and financial-wise.
His ASL concept was damaging to inter-organisation football relations. The more he pressed his case, the more FAS was estranged from the wider Southeast Asian family. It does not end there though.
Push for Greater Prominence Ends in Farce
AseanBola understood that under Zainudin’s direction, FAS backed the candidate opposing current AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa in Asian and world football elections.
The consequence of the opposition saw Singapore being one of the three remaining Southeast Asian nations (the others are Vietnam and Timor Leste) yet to be given an official visit by the Bahrain prince so far as the head of Asian football.
Zainudin’s final – and most prominent – football diplomatic clanger came in India on October 2016. In a near-unanimous AFC vote against the proceeding of the Extraordinary General Meeting in protest against FIFA, he was the lone ranger to vote “Yes” amidst his valiant campaign to be elected into the newly expanded FIFA Council, the highest decision-making body in world football.
It rendered Singapore as the laughing stock of Asian football, as local and international media could not comprehend his move while compatriot Winston Lee Boon Aun sitting on stage as one of the five AFC vice-presidents.
Long Road Ahead, But A Step in Right Direction
Hence, the AFC general secretary’s visit came as a timely moment for present FAS president Lim Kia Tong and his new leadership to begin mending a previously-unhinged bridge between the two bodies.
With his sound reputation in service at the FIFA and AFC Disciplinary Committees – which incidentally Sheikh Salman had served en route to the top of the Asian football body, his international football diplomatic skills will be tested as FAS seeks to improve football diplomatic ties with its regional and continental counterparts.
The road in repairing his predecessor’s destructive football diplomacy is going to be a massive challenge in the years ahead, but if the cordial FAS-AFC meeting were already to go by, FAS had made the major first step in the right direction.