“Just like a library, just like a library,” sang the Hougang Hools as the Singapore Premier League (SPL) resumed yesterday with games at Our Tampines Hub and Jurong East Stadium.
While fans were not allowed into the stadiums for the return of Singapore’s only professional sports league, it was far from quiet as Tampines Rovers hosted Hougang United after Covid-19 forced the league to be suspended in March.
A handful of fans from Tampines and Hougang as well as pockets of curious spectators stood at various vantage points – such as the fifth-floor jogging track and the library on the second storey – within the integrated community and lifestyle hub to watch the game, though some were seen not observing safe distancing practices.
With the SPL the first sports league to restart here, strict protocols were in place to ensure the safety of all involved.
Teams were confined to their respective changing rooms after reporting two hours before kickoff, and both sets of players made staggered entrances and exits onto the pitch with no handshakes allowed. Substitutes did not sit in the dugout but in the stands and there was no stadium announcer or ball boys.
All 223 local-based players and match officials tested negative for Covid-19 on Oct 4 and swab tests will be conducted every two weeks.
The number of substitutions for teams has been increased from three to five, a maximum of three substitution windows allowed during the first and second halves, and mandatory water breaks introduced in all matches.
Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, was an observer at the game and felt the measures were sufficient and well-followed. Also present were Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin and Football Association of Singapore president Lim Kia Tong.
Mr Tong said: “Individual discipline is crucial, and every player, official and ground staff needs to be conscious of safe distancing and personal hygiene. This would give us confidence to see it through to the end of the season.”
The return of football action was competitive and intriguing as Hougang ended a 10-game winless streak against Tampines since 2016 to win 2-1. Despite the defeat, Tampines remain top with nine points from five games, while Hougang are up to third, two points back but with a game in hand.
The Stags entered the game as favourites after beating Balestier Khalsa, Tanjong Pagar United and big-money Lion City Sailors before the break, but were missing attacker Zehrudin Mehmedovic through suspected dengue fever.
Despite being out of competitive action for over six months, the teams held up well with passes and touches becoming sloppy only in the last 10 minutes, as Hougang midfielder Charlie Machell was the first to succumb to cramps in the 83rd minute.
While the visitors made use of all five substitutions, Tampines coach Gavin Lee made just three subs and watched in despair as his side missed two gilt-edged opportunities to score in added time.
Lee said: “I’m disappointed with the result but not with the fitness levels and efforts of the players. Even at the end, we were focused not on the score but on creating opportunities. We did that, but just could not finish.”
Hougang coach Clement Teo added: “Without a proper pre-season, I expected injuries. But this is where depth and rotation comes in, and we have the capabilities to deal with that.”
Hougang defender Lionel Tan acknowledged the physical and mental exertions of playing a first competitive match in more than six months. The 23-year-old said: “We didn’t play any friendlies before restarting so we are definitely not in tip-top condition.
“The introduction of two water breaks in the middle of each half is good for us to quench our thirst and curb our urge to spit. I felt the set-up today was perfect and there was no disruption. The fans turning up was a bonus and as long as they observe safe distancing measures, we really appreciate their support.”
Yesterday’s other SPL match also went on without a hitch as Balestier Khalsa beat Tanjong Pagar United 1-0 in Jurong to climb to second on eight points, while the Jaguars remain seventh with two points.