By Adeena Nagib
Football used to be a sport that only men would play professionally in Singapore. But now, more women are swapping their heels for muddy boots instead.
From 2017, the Women’s Premier League (WPL), the top tier of women’s football in Singapore, has been divided into two divisions — the WPL and a new Women’s National League.
With this new two-tier playing structure, aimed at meeting the increasing demand for women’s football in the Republic, five additional teams have registered to compete. There are now 14 women’s football clubs, an increase from 11 in 2016.
Even in video games, women’s football has shown progress. In 2015, 12 women’s national teams were featured in FIFA 16, an Electronic Arts (EA) football simulation video game, featuring notable countries like England and the United States.
In EA’s latest version, FIFA 17, the number of teams increased to 14 with the inclusion of Norway and New Zealand.
But challenges remain for Singapore’s female football teams.
The Singapore women’s national team, the Lionesses, were unable to compete in the recent South East Asian (SEA) Games.
The requirement set by the Singapore National Olympic Council to compete in the Games was to achieve at least a draw against Myanmar in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup Qualifiers back in April, but the team ended up losing 4-0.
Nur Syafiqah Peer Mohamed, 21, who plays for both the NTU women’s football team and the Lionesses, shared that despite the setback, she remains optimistic about the future of women’s football in Singapore.
“We are still developing, and we see improvement,” said the second-year student from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“I was disappointed but now, 2019’s SEA Games is the goal.”
Despite her optimism, changing traditional mindsets about the sport remains a challenge. Women’s football is often deemed to be played only for recreation and is not seen as a priority.
Syafiqah’s mother, for instance, was hesitant about her pursuing football, saying that women can only play until a certain age “before having to find a husband and settle down.”
But Syafiqah, a Manchester United fan, refuted.
“Football is a sport. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man playing it. The ball is round, so (you need to) just kick it.”
Bhanu Krishnasamy, 22, a first-year Sports Science and Management student, agrees with teammate Syafiqah. Having a petite built, Bhanu said her male peers often doubt her ability to play football.
“When I mention that I play soccer, men will just stare at me and think I’m joking,” said the 1.45-metre tall midfielder.
Bhanu, who also plays for the NTU women’s football team, added: “It’s the stereotype. You have to show them that you can play and be aggressive before the respect is earned.”
Going for gold
The NTU women’s football team has already shown that they are not to be trifled with.
In the past decade, they have won the championship title nine consecutive times, save for their loss to National University of Singapore in the Singapore University Games (SUniG) last year.
With new head coach Mohammad Herman Zailani, the team’s training regime has intensified and the girls remain hungry to bring the gold home.
“I can see their desire to win,” said the 37-year-old.
“They are dedicated and want success, making it easier for me to work with them.”
Having previously coached the Singapore Management University (SMU) women’s football team for a year in 2006, Mr Mohammad has seen the support for women’s football increase significantly.
“Support was minimal then. The SMU girls had to go out of school to train and even pay for their coaches,” he said.
“Now, NTU trains twice a week and has a goalkeeper coach alongside a head coach.”
The former Tampines Rovers Football Club coach notes that there is a stark difference between coaching a men’s team and a women’s team.
“Women are more eager to learn and are always asking questions. With men, they believe that they know, so they don’t always listen,” he said.
The Lionesses are currently placed 98th out of 177 countries in the Fifa rankings, comparatively higher than the ranking for the men’s football team at 171st out of 211 countries.
But Mr Mohammad concedes that there is still room for improvement for female footballers. The difference in technical ability between men and women footballers is substantial, mostly due to females starting at a later age than males because of a lack of competitive opportunities.
“Girls mostly start playing at the tertiary level. Starting off late makes it an even bigger challenge because football is not an easy sport to master,” he said.
Despite this hurdle, he believes that Singapore’s best route to international success is through women’s football.
Mr Mohammad added: “Women’s football is relatively new everywhere so we’re at the same footing as everyone else.
“Except for teams like USA and Germany, Singapore is not as far off as compared to men’s football.”
Cheer the NTU women’s football team on as they compete on home ground this September in the Singapore University Games.
|NTU vs SIM||4 September, 7:30pm||NTU SRC Main Field|
|NTU vs SMU||7 September, 7:30pm||NTU SRC Main Field|
|NTU vs SIT||14 September, 7:30pm||NTU SRC Main Field|
|NTU vs NUS||18 September, 7:30pm||NUS Football Field @ University Health Centre|