Success of Sailors augurs well for Singapore Premier League
Sponsor SEA's spending on football could trigger a virtuous circle for clubs and attract big companies
Finally, after six seasons of foreign domination, a local club have won the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
In doing so on Sunday, the Lion City Sailors have not just restored local pride, but also taken the first steps in reinvigorating Singapore football as fans make their way back to stadiums.
Some spectators even perched themselves atop multi-storey carparks nearby to watch games, albeit in the Covid-19 era when stadium capacity is limited to 1,000 spectators.
For too long, many SPL clubs have been in a purgatory of sorts, as financially stretched or indebted clubs do what they can to survive on Tote Board handouts without ever having enough to take themselves or the league to another level.
Some, like nine-time champions Warriors FC, even had to sit out the last two seasons to sort themselves out.
As a result, the SPL was ruled by Albirex Niigata, who won four championships in five seasons with an ever-changing cast of university students and lower-league rejects from Japan.
In came tech giant SEA Limited, owned by local billionaire Forrest Li, to change the landscape with the privatisation of Home United to form the Sailors last year.
While money is never a guarantee for success in sport, minimal investment is almost always a recipe for mediocrity for a team sport like football.
And the benefits of SEA's willingness to start spending on Singapore football could be felt in the years to come through a virtuous circle.
First, the Sailors' academy for players aged six to 18 was awarded one star by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which means it has the fundamentals of an elite youth academy.
This offers the assurance of quality coaching, which hopefully leads to the unearthing and polishing of more talents.
Generous contracts offered to the senior team's players should also then convince parents and players that there is a future as a professional footballer here, which helps to retain talent.
Current Sailors will be on their toes, knowing that the lure of big contracts means there will be many from other clubs working hard to take their place.
The ability to amass the best local talents and attract high-quality imports increases the squad strength and competitiveness, which improves their chances of doing well in the SPL and the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup.
With many Lions in the side, this should also help the national team with building chemistry, assuming their playing philosophies are aligned.
In the chicken-and-egg dilemma, SEA stepped forward with the golden egg.
Since last year's takeover, they have lifted the monthly salaries of some local players into the five-figure bracket, persuaded an AFC Champions League-winning coach to join, beefed up their backroom, and pledged $10 million to build a training facility.
They have also shelled out $2.9 million - more than the annual budget of SPL clubs - to sign Brazilian Diego Lopes from Portugal's top division.
The Sailors are undoubtedly the big fish in a small pond now, pushed by Albirex and a self-sufficient Hougang United, who have overcome initial upheaval to become a rising force.
But, with their considerable war chest, the Sailors are expected to pull away from the pack. Yet, things cannot remain that way for the long term because a predictable league will only grow stale.
While the Sailors must not be tied down by bureaucracy, the other clubs must try to keep up.
Ideally, a short-term scenario of sustained success on the domestic and continental fronts for the Sailors will attract not just sponsors and fans, but also encourage other big companies to take over SPL clubs or even the entire league.
If more SPL clubs privatise, the subsidies can then flow to the more ambitious and better-managed National Football League teams to create another division below the league.
This will introduce new dimensions of competitiveness and excitement that have been sorely lacking with the absence of promotion and relegation.
So even as the Sailors pipped Albirex in a thrilling title race, the real excitement lies in what the future holds for the Singapore football scene with the big-spending club leading the way into uncharted waters.