Monday, September 17, 2012

Albirex Niigata 0 at Balestier Khalsa 1 (S.League) - September 16, 2012

The S.League is Singapore's soccer circuit, consisting of 14 teams that play around the island. Unlike most soccer leagues which have nearly every team playing on the same day or weekend, the S.League schedules games in a haphazard fashion, so you have to check regularly to see if there is a match worth attending in the near future. Such was the case today, when I saw that Albirex Niigata was taking on Balestier Khalsa in nearby Toa Payoh Stadium.

Singapore is a small country, but it is a big city, and many of the stadiums in the league are nearly an hour away from where I live, located in the outlying suburbs. Toa Payoh, however, is just down the street, a short bus ride away. The home team would be Balestier Khalsa, while the visitors were Albirex Niigata, a satellite squad affiliated with the J League team of the same name. All of their players are from Japan and they attract a small following of Japanese who are residing here in Singapore. Albirex lay second in the table, just two points behind defending champions Tampines Rovers but Balestier (known as the Tigers) has a strong home record. This is about as compelling as an S.League match could get, so I dutifully made my way over to Toa Payoh for the 7:45 start.

Toa Payoh Stadium

Some readers might remember when I visited the Southeast Asian Swimming Championships back in May. They took place at the Toa Payoh Swimming Complex, which is right next door to the stadium. In Singapore, many residential areas have large sports areas which include pools, gyms, and outdoor fields. Toa Payoh is one of the larger sports complexes, although the soccer stadium itself is rather small with a capacity of just 3,900.

Like all local stadiums in the league, there is little to talk about. Tickets were $5 ($4 US) and that allowed you to sit on very uncomfortable concrete blocks for the whole game (above), just like in ancient Rome. There was a "VIP" section with plastic seats but I did not meet the criteria and was shuffled off to the plebe area.

The pitch was about a mile away, separated from the seats by a track plus an extra swath of grass, and with the haze and poor lighting, visibility was not very good. There were seats on the other side of the field but few fans wanted to make the trek in the humidity.

Popcorn and cotton candy were available but not much else. The scoreboard was so small, I could barely see it and a picture wasn't even worth taking. S.League stadiums are really not professional venues; they are community-oriented facilities that have been co-opted for league use. For $5, you can't expect much more.

The Game

Both clubs give up less than a goal a game, which meant a 1-0 final was quite likely. The question was which team would score first.  After 30 forgettable minutes, Zulkiffli Hassim of Balestier committed an egregious case of handball, reaching up to stop the ball from sailing by him. Oops. Yellow card for that. Two minutes later, Hassim again lost his focus, kicking one of the Albirex players who had fallen from another tackle. That might have been a straight red, but certainly another yellow was warranted and Hassim walked off the pitch, leaving the Tigers with 10 men and nearly 60 minutes still to play.

The first half finished scoreless but I was sure that the Japanese squad would take advantage of their extra man to secure the three points in the second. However, Balestier were stronger from the restart and just missed with a shot off the crossbar 10 minutes in. Albirex should have taken heed and started to defend better, but within seconds, the home team mounted another attack and after a few bounces in the penalty area, the ball fell to Kim Minho who drilled it home for the lead just before the hour mark.

Albirex pressed late and had one chance just go over the bar (above) but they couldn't break the shutout and fell 1-0. A poor showing as they had an extra man for much of the game but couldn't make use of him.

The match was slowed by several incidents of pushing and shoving along with the typical overacting and time wasting that seems to be the norm here. I guess that it is so hot on the field that the players need more breaks, so they do what they can to get them. For me, that will be it for the S.League for a while; the games are just not very interesting and I can't suddenly start cheering for one team, not even Albirex. Before I next attend a match here, I do hope that the authorities can teach the players to stop behaving like babies, it is really juvenile and not becoming of a professional league trying to make it on the world stage.

Next Up

The Singapore F1 is being held this coming weekend and I'll be attending Friday's practice session and the race on Sunday. The following weekend will see me fly to Sri Lanka for three matches in the T20 Cricket World Cup. One week later and I'll be back in Japan, looking to watch a ballgame or two and maybe some tennis. As usual, check back for updates as the next month promises to be a busy one.



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