To see a young player signed by an English Premier League team is the dream of many Southeast Asian football fans. But for Ben Davis and football fans in Singapore, the fantasy did not last long.
Only 24 hours, in fact.
On July 13, the 17-year-old signed a two-year contract with Fulham FC. The following day, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Singapore revealed in a media statement that Davis was expected back in December to report for his mandatory two years of National Service (NS) as his application for a deferment had been rejected in June.
The MoD raised concerns that Davis, who also holds British and Thai passports and can play for Singapore’s national team after becoming a citizen of the island state in 2009, would not return to serve if he received a deferment.
“Mr Davis’ actions are meant to further his own professional career, not national interest,” the statement said, adding that Mr Davis’ father would not commit to a date for his son to complete his service.
In a public reply, Davis senior countered that his son was not able to do so because of the unpredictability of trying to make it in such a highly competitive sport.
“There are a lot of variables all dependent on his development and progression, and anyone who understands how professional football and sports works will understand this,” he said in a statement released to the media. “In my discussions … I was clear that Ben should do his NS, but the question is just when.”
Davis, born in Thailand to a Thai mother and British father, moved to Singapore as a child and was granted citizenship in 2009. Moving to England in 2016, he impressed during trials for Fulham’s academy in 2017 and was offered the professional contract he recently signed.
It was a rare piece of good news for Singapore football fans. Local football has been in the doldrums in recent years, but interest in the big European leagues, especially England’s, has remained high. The national team has slipped to 169 out of 211 in the world rankings, behind traditional minnows such as Grenada and Belize, and the average attendance at local league matches has fallen to about 2,000.
This has led to some comments on social media saying the Singapore football scene would be healthier if those debating the rights and wrongs of the Davis case and getting excited about the prospect of one of their players in the English Premier League engaged more with local football.
However, the prospect of an English Premier League star returning home to play for the Singapore national team is an exciting one. Deferments for sportsmen and women, however, are rare in Singapore as authorities argue that such pursuits are usually personal and not for the benefit of the country as a whole.
Most fans and those involved in the sports industry appear to support the teenager over the government. One argument is he can bring pride and prestige to the small nation by playing in the world’s most popular football league, and then do his duty when the relatively short career that all football players enjoy is over.
Joseph Schooling, a 2016 Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, was one of only three athletes to have been granted a postponement.
Schooling told Davis to listen to his heart. “Obviously, I come from a different sport, I was in [a] different situation. I can’t advise him on what to do,” he said. “He should get together with his parents, decide what’s the best plan for himself and go from there. It’s definitely a difficult situation for him. But my advice to him would be to follow his dreams.”
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) wants to see Davis in the Premier League and eligible to play for the national team. The governing body of Singapore football said it will help Davis with an appeal to the MoD.
“We believe that the support for a Singaporean to play at the highest level will have benefits to the community and nation,” the FAS said. “We will work with Benjamin and his family … with a view to seeking to persuade [the MoD] of the merits of the application and to assuage [the MoD’s] concerns over Benjamin’s national service commitments, and to find a balanced solution to the issue which best serves our nation’s interests.”
The MoD has already indicated that if no new facts are presented then the appeal will fail. If so, what happens next is anyone’s guess. One nightmare scenario for local fans would see Davis choosing to play instead for Thailand, his mother’s homeland.
Thailand, which has also never had a local player star in the English Premier League, is reportedly keeping a close eye on the situation.
“The Thailand national teams are constantly and continuously scouting for players locally and overseas who are eligible,” said Benjamin Tan, the deputy chief executive officer of the Thai League and ironically a Singaporean. The Thai Premier League is regarded as the strongest in Southeast Asia.
“So we will be open about such an opportunity given to these players. Having seen him play, he will definitely be an asset. If Ben’s family are exploring options to keep his football dream alive, I will be more than happy to facilitate discussions and take this forward.”
The saga is far from over and may go to extra time.