Will A Singaporean Finally Play In The English Championship?
With the transfer season of European football leagues in full bloom, a key signing took place last week that had every football-loving Singaporean on the edge of their seats.
No, it wasn’t Romelu Lukaku’s £75 million (S$134 million) transfer from Everton to Manchester United — it was 16-year-old Singaporean Benjamin Davis’ signing of a 2-year football scholarship with England’s Fulham Football Club.
2nd Tier In England
Fulham, which plays in the Championship, the division below the English Premier League (EPL), has a youth academy that’s among the top 24 in England.
While instances of Singaporean footballers who have played overseas are not unheard of, Ben Davis would earn the accolade among his compatriots of playing at the highest and most famous level of football should he actually turn out for Fulham in the Championship.
The previous Singaporean to play in England is the current record holder for national appearances, Daniel Bennett.
The 39-year-old centre back had 2 stints with Wrexham in the then English Third Division.
Hold On To Your Horses
Now before you rush over to Weston Singapore to purchase a Fulham jersey with Davis’ name on it, it would be best to put it off till he actually signs a professional contract with the club.
While the scholarship gives Davis a chance at the big time, the road to fame and fortune is not an easy one.
Here are few factors that could potentially derail his chances.
1. National Service
The issue of national service deferment for our national athletes is a debate that has cropped up time and again, especially when a promising athlete is on the cusp of the big time.
Some feel that national players should not be allowed to skip or defer national service because it is their duty as a Singaporean.
Others argue that having to serve national service at the age of 18 will potentially disrupt athletes’ progress, and it will be difficult for any Singaporean male athlete to excel on the world stage if he has to serve for 2 years in a very important stage of his
While national swimmer Joseph Schooling managed to defer his NS till after the 2020 Olympic games, he actually won an Olympic gold medal.
Unlike swimming, which has events for individual competition, football is a team sport.
It would be more difficult to argue that Davis deserves a deferment, short of him single-handedly leading Fulham to the EPL title, or Singapore to a place in the FIFA World Cup.
2. Reduction In Foreign Imports
Davis isn’t even guaranteed a work permit in England, after the English Football Association (FA) tightened its rules.
The following table done by sports lawyer Daniel Geey shows the criteria for international players to receive a work permit to play in England; “official FIFA ranking” refers to the ranking of the country that the international player comes from.
Given that Singapore is currently languishing at an all time low FIFA ranking of 157, it’s not even covered in the table, and players from lowly ranked countries like Singapore would have to file an appeal with the British authorities to get a work permit.
For internationals to qualify to play in England, they also need to play the appropriate percentage of international games for their own national team.
However, there are exceptions for under-21 players like Davis, who have yet to represent Singapore’s main national squad. Instead of international appearances over the last 2 years, youth players like Davis only need to have represented their country in the last 12 months.
And to illustrate the reasons behind such strict rules, a report by The Telegraph quoted FA boss Greg Clark as saying that top talent would always be welcome in England — but he’s also concerned that international players may reduce the chances of young English players who are just as good.
Adam Swandi’s Example
Davis need only need to look at the case of former Singaporean golden boy Adam Swandi to understand the difficulties of playing overseas.
Back in 2014, Swandi was signed with French Ligue 1 team FC Metz — but he contemplated not signing a contract extension with them.
Why not? Because the then 18-year-old wasn’t sure that he could defer his national service.
Swandi also told The New Paper that his lack of appearances for the under-21 team stemmed from work permit issues:
I assumed once I turned 18 (in January) I would be eligible to play for their U-21 team, but it only marked the point the club could apply a for licence, something like a work permit, for me.
The process took five or six months, so I couldn’t play in any league games and nobody told me it was because I didn’t have the licence, so I was quite down.
By the time it came through, it was late May and I could only play one competitive match.
After finishing his NS, Swandi is now back in Singapore, and playing with S-League team Home United.
While at least Swandi could continue his footballing career back home, we’ll never know what he would have achieved if he had stayed at Metz and continued his footballing education without the spectres of national service and work permit issues.
Singapore Fans Comment
Ever willing to chip in, netizens shared their opinion on Davis’ move on Facebook.
Some offered support.
Some were realistic.
Others were just fatalistic, believing that for Davis for truly shine, he should never return to Singapore.
But ultimately, most netizens realised the dilemma here. How can we build local talent and improve the state of Singapore’s sporting achievements when any talented youngster has to go overseas and even forego his Singapore roots to make any name for themselves?
Best Of Luck, Ben
We wish Ben Davis the best of luck in his fledgling football career.
Hopefully, he can find a way to shine for Singapore despite the likely obstacles.