Commentary: China’s football team (unwittingly) revives Singapore football

The shocking draw between China & Singapore gave Singaporeans hope

Singapore football fans owe a debt of gratitude to China’s football captain Zhang Linpeng and his teammates: they managed to — albeit unwittingly — revive local football, even if it was for just one (very) brief, (not quite) shining moment. 

In the wake of a shock 2-2 draw with the city-state in Singapore last Thursday (21 March), normal service resumed on Tuesday night, when China beat Singapore 4-1 in Tianjin during the return leg of a 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier. 

Source: Football Association of Singapore on Facebook

But it was last week’s draw that really caught the eye, as well as the attention of international media outlets such as the BBC. Having gone 2-0 up against a team 68 places below them in the FIFA world rankings, the Chinese contrived to squander the lead with some comical defending. 

A Singaporean journalist said the draw represented “hope”, and he was right. There is certainly now hope that other football teams may be in an even more parlous state than that of Singapore.

An ‘unbearable’ result

Chinese fans watched in disbelief as their compatriots drew with a team that has recently struggled to beat Guam and drew with the Solomon Islands — these two places combined have less than 800,000 people.  

Singapore also has been going through coaches like packets of tissue paper, with five in the last six years. Not to mention the public discontent with the Football Association of Singapore, which is often seen as rudderless and insular.

It could have been even worse — the referee somehow missed Singapore’s Safuwan Baharudin being wrestled to the ground by a Chinese defender, which should have resulted in an injury time penalty. Fortunately, the feelings of a billion Chinese people weren’t wounded in the process. 

Source: Sohu

As it was, Zhang summed up the feelings of his own fans when he called the “unbearable” result a “disgrace”. The Shanghai Port defender added that he was quitting the national team

Then Zhang went on to, in that expression so beloved of Singapore’s netizens, flip prata. Over the weekend, he told Chinese state media that he had had a change of heart

“I don’t think I led the team properly,” said the 34-year-old, which is a bit like saying that the FAS’s goal of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup is a tad unrealistic. “As long as the national team needs me, I will go all out and hold on to the end.” 

In response, a Chinese friend dryly remarked to me: “I think the country is standing with him on this statement — they all think he should retire.”

At least Zhang kept his promise to hold on to the end — in Tianjin, he stayed on the bench for the entire 90 minutes. 

Singapore County

In a qualifying group that also includes South Korea and Thailand, China can still advance to the third round of World Cup qualifiers. Singapore remains rooted to the bottom of the group with a solitary point and is unlikely to progress.

But the entire kerfuffle has understandably exasperated Chinese fans. Despite its immense resources and the backing of Chinese President Xi Jinping, China has not qualified for the World Cup since 2002. Meanwhile, regional rivals such as Japan and South Korea have made massive strides in the game. 

China vs Singapore on 21 March. Source: Football Association of Singapore on Facebook

There is also an unspoken political subtext to all this. Chinese netizens often half-jokingly refer to Singapore as Po Xian, or Singapore County, the implication being that it is merely a tiny part of China. Perhaps this also contributed to their fury at the result. 

Maybe I am reading too much into all this. Maybe it really was just about football, and we should all take pride in the fighting spirit that our boys showed.

We can now go back to vain attempts at winning the ASEAN Championship and conceding a hatful of goals to teams like South Korea. But if nothing else, at least Zhang and his teammates provided us with a bit of entertainment. 

Thank you, Zhang Linpeng. You gave us hope — and a lot of laughs. 

Nicholas Yong is a veteran journalist who has worked at media outlets such as BBC News and Yahoo News Singapore over the past 17 years.

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Featured image adapted from Football Association of Singapore on Facebook and Facebook

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