Singapore showcases football's best once a year -- and it wants more
The sea of Manchester United red and the seemingly endless sight of Ronaldo shirts last month were proof, if it were needed, of the huge interest in Singapore in the biggest names and brands of world football.
Ronaldo was treated to adulation and screams akin to Beatlemania during Juventus' 3-2 defeat against Tottenham at the National Stadium, and it was similar the night before when, while training at the nearby Bishan Stadium, he played to the gallery as he was doing yoga exercises on the pitch.
United, meanwhile, were, in the words of one club official, "smothered by kindness and love" at their Ritz-Carlton Hotel base as fans queued patiently and politely in the lobby while waiting for autographs and selfies with their favourite players.
For the third year in a row, the Singapore National Stadium played host to fixtures involving European football's leading clubs in the International Champions Cup, and the total crowd of 103,340 over the two nights -- United beat Inter Milan 24 hours before Juve's loss to Spurs following Harry Kane's stoppage-time wonder goal -- confirmed that this corner of Southeast Asia is very much open for business when it comes to high-end football.
The local supporters, who watch televised English Premier League games in the middle of the night, are desperate for the opportunity to see the stars in action on their doorstep, while at the other end of the spectrum Singaporean billionaires such as Peter Lim, who owns Spanish club Valencia and has a 50 percent stake in Salford City, the English club co-owned by David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil and Gary Neville, emphasise the financial power that this tiny country can wield in professional football.
But can Singapore's involvement in elite football go beyond a fleeting annual glimpse of the top players and ownership of clubs on the other side of the world?
'The football-crazy nature of our nation'
The Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) has floated a plan to bid for the 2034 World Cup -- it would involve as many as 10 nations co-hosting the tournament -- and attempts by La Liga, Serie A and even the Premier League to play competitive games abroad have attracted interest from this corner of the globe.
Speaking to ESPN, Yazeen Buhari, general secretary of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), said that Singapore has proved itself as a host.
"A successful bid by ASEAN to host the World Cup would see the global football community focus their attention on the region," Buhari said. "This in turn will galvanise the sport here and lift it to the next level.
"It would be most visible in the long-term impact given that the ASEAN's football community will be the one to benefit, especially with improved football infrastructure. It would also allow the ASEAN football fans to come together as one as they cooperate with one another for the programming that is required to host a tournament of such a scale.
"Such a reaction is in line with FIFA's ambition of having football as the vehicle to unite the world. We look forward to engaging with the regional member associations to explore the feasibility of such a joint bid."
Hosting ICC games, as well as the Premier League Asia Trophy in 2015, is another indicator, Buhari says, of Singapore's readiness to host competitive fixtures between football's top teams.
"The growing interest by foreign clubs in Singapore as a destination is an indication of the football-crazy nature of our nation," Buhari says. "Furthermore, it reflects the trust placed by both the organisers and the European clubs in Singapore's ability to execute such large-scale events with the kind of world-class efficiency, logistics management and facilities that we are known for.
"The presence of top European football clubs in Singapore participating in tournaments such as during the Barclays Asia Trophy and International Champions Cup as part of their preseason preparations, has helped to a certain extent create a vibrant football culture by adding to the calendar of football events that fans can attend.
"The mass following that these clubs have mean that the matches they play here are well attended, while supporters also turn out in force at various fan events in the buildup to the matches."
Building a legacy one step at a time
Any country with ambitions of hosting major football events must boast excellent training facilities, easy travel and safe accommodation for players and team staff. Singapore goes beyond and scores highly too in terms of the infrastructure for supporters travelling to and from the stadium.
Yet while the big clubs happily travel to Singapore for the adulation and ability to cash in by playing games in the country, what is in it for the domestic game and the supporters once the circus leaves town? Is there a legacy for Singapore, or is it just a one-way street?
"Strategic partnerships are key in helping to further develop the local football scene," Buhari said. "One such example is our sponsorship agreement with global insurer AIA earlier this year to be the new title sponsor of Singapore's only professional sports league -- the AIA Singapore Premier League.
"As part of the agreement, we have lined up several initiatives to work together to reach out and target the community, especially the youth, thereby increasing participation at the grassroots level.
"Since AIA is also the sponsor for Tottenham Hotspur, the club conducted a football clinic and camp for our local kids and youth players during the lead-up to this year's ICC tournament. The AIA Football Kids Camp was conducted by Tottenham Hotspur youth coaches while the club was in town.
"Our local football coaches also benefitted from a coaching clinic by the same coaches, who imparted their youth development experience. This falls in line with one of the Football Association of Singapore's objectives, which is to deliver industry-best practices in coach development."
Whether Singapore will play host to a competitive Premier League game or help stage a World Cup remains to be seen, and both appear some way down the line.
But the ambition is there, as are the facilities and interest from local supporters, so neither dream appears to be improbable or impossible.