As I sat and watched Andrei Varankou fire home Brunei DPMM's third against Geylang International last night before we had even reached half-time, a familiar sense of despondency washed over me. The Brunei-based club side were set to pull nine points clear at the top of the Singapore Premier League, and 10 clear of the closest local side. It's been a while since we've had a proper title race in this country, and Albirex Niigata's poor early season form this campaign gave football fans here a glimmer of hope that for once, we might see a closely fought, well contested league season which goes down to the wire. It wasn't quite to be.
This season alone, Belarusian frontman Varankou has scored a stunning 14 league goals in just nine outings, while his teammate Blake Ricciuto has six. The local clubs are struggling to compete with such firepower, and as we nosedive into what looks to be yet another uncompetitive season, it's time to take a look at whether Brunei DPMM are doing more harm than good to the local game.
Differing rules undermine the competition
For a league struggling to convince Singaporeans of its credibility and merit, it seems counter-intuitive that the league organizers would agree to one set of rules for local sides, and another for DPMM. After all, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
With the FAS announcing rule changes in 2016 that would see the number of foreigners per team reduced to two, while stipulating that all clubs must have at least six under-23 players and eight under-30 players in the squad, this did not sit well with DPMM.
The Wasps began to throw their toys out of the pram, first declaring their interest in leaving the SPL for Malaysian football, before stating their intention to join Indonesia's Liga 1 instead. However, further talks with the FAS saw the governing body agree to allow DPMM to sign three foreign players rather than two, and to operate without an age limit.
This irked me for a number of reasons. With both the FAM and PSSI making it clear they would not allow DPMM to join their domestic leagues, the FAS appeared to be the ones holding the cards in negotiations, making their decision to compromise a strange one. Even so, the hugely favourable decision DPMM eventually received from the FAS did not stop them from announcing their intention to join the Thai League 1 in 2019, and again the Indonesian Liga 1 in 2020.
In my view, such flippant club management and reluctance to commit to the league in spite of numerous concessions already being made are detrimental to the SPL's credibility and professionalism.
Lack of local connection
The most important thing for any football club in any country is a connection with their surroundings, and so far, Brunei DPMM have made virtually no effort to connect with Singaporeans and the local football community. With not a single Singapore player on their roster and being based outside the country, the club hasn't really managed to draw the interest of the local populace.
The fundamental difference between DPMM and Albirex, the SPL's other foreign side, is that Albirex have formed genuine roots in their community. With a long term Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and numerous community outreach programs already signed and done with Yuhua Community Club, the White Swans have well and truly captured the imagination of Jurong East residents, posting consistently high attendances and boasting a vociferous home support, a quite amazing feat for what is, in essence, a Japanese satellite team. DPMM have little to match.
While this point is not directly related to the actual football on the pitch, they speak volumes to fans who are looking to follow the local competition, be it online or at the stadiums. When DPMM applied to play in the Malaysia Super League recently, they were informed by the FAM that this would only be allowed if they were to play home matches in Malaysia, and have a squad of Malaysian players with Bruneians regarded as foreigners, or imports. Could it be time for the FAS to legislate similarly to protect the local spirit of the SPL?
Resources gazumping any competitors
With 20 of DPMM's 25 goals this season coming from the foreign duo of Varankou and Ricciuto while former Bristol Rovers centre half Charlie Clough has kept things tight at the back, it's abundantly clear that the Bruneian outfit's foreigners are head and shoulders above most other foreign players in the division, never mind local ones.
Owned by the Crown Prince of Brunei and bankrolled by the Royal Family, it is virtually impossible for any local club to get remotely near them in terms of spending. In fact, while local SPL clubs are technically allowed to sign two foreign players plus two Under-21 foreigners, only Tampines Rovers have shown themselves capable of footing the immense bill that comes with signing four import players, with the rest of the clubs having two or three at most.
With Varankou and Ricciuto getting the goals for DPMM again last night, Amy Recha's solitary consolation strike for Geylang was symbolic of the immense gulf in financial capabilities that exist between DPMM and their opponents in the league.
Make no mistake- Brunei DPMM have been fantastic to watch this season, with free-flowing football and the goals to match. If I were a neutral looking on, I might even applaud and say "bravo!". But from the perspective of a long-term season ticketholder at my local club and a regular at the stadiums, you have to ask yourself what Singapore football really stands to gain from this project.