Singapore football needs to think ‘out of this world’, say observers
PHNOM PENH – If Singapore football is to get out of this current rut, it needs to think “out of this world” and make “drastic changes”, say local experts and observers.
Once again, the state of local football is under scrutiny after a catastrophic showing at the SEA Games, where the Young Lions did not win a single match, losing 3-1 to Thailand and Vietnam, 7-0 to Malaysia and drawing 0-0 with Laos to finish bottom of Group B.
The national Under-22 and U-23 teams last made the Games’ semi-finals in 2013, while the seniors have qualified for the last four of the Asean Football Federation Championship just once in the last decade.
In September 2021, former national defender R. Sasikumar moved his family to Spain and his two boys Kyen, 12, and Tylan, nine, are now playing regularly and contributing to their respective Atletico Madrid youth teams.
If Singapore can send its best pre-teen talent to Europe, it may have a chance of breeding winners, he said.
He added: “The India Under-17s are in Europe playing against the top youth teams in Spain and Germany. If India, who have a vibrant league but whose first sport is not football, can wake up to the idea that they cannot develop football in their own country, then why are we not doing it?”
Earlier, The Straits Times had reported that national football project Unleash The Roar! (UTR) is looking to launch a football scholarship to send players aged 13 to 16 on long-term stints of up to three years at overseas academies that offer top-level training and competition, as well as quality education.
But Sasikumar feels there is a need to start them younger.
He added: “It is easier to shape their thinking in their formative years. We cannot wait until they are 15 or 16 because it may be harder to get them to change their habits, and they don’t have long before they need to enlist for national service (NS).”
This way, Singapore could create a new generation of players “with new mindsets, with new beliefs”.
Should Young Lions stay in the pride?
There has been much debate on the Young Lions in the past decade, with supporters on both sides of the fence debating the pros and cons of the team remaining in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). The club are mainly a developmental side consisting of players who are undergoing NS and are managed by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).
They have finished bottom of the league six times since they were introduced in 2003, and were in the last two in seven of the last eight seasons.
Former SPL player Duncan Elias disagrees with the philosophy, stating that the club “cannot be a halfway house for players who are in NS”.
He added: “If you are not good enough and lose and lose, what have you proven at pro level when you reach 23 or 24 and exceed the age limit?”
Agreeing that the team should be abolished, Sasikumar said that their resources should be channelled to fund talented young players’ moves overseas.
He said: “The statistics don’t lie. Losing is normalised for them, so how are we creating winners with the Young Lions? The FAS probably spends $2 million a year on the Young Lions. How many players can we keep in Europe for that money?”
Former Singapore goalkeeper Yakob Hashim, however, sits firmly in the camp that believes the Young Lions should stay as they still serve a purpose as a talent pool.
Aside from suggesting for the best young footballers to be paid decent salaries, he added: “Get young foreign talent whom you can groom and naturalise later – like what Home United did with Song Ui-young – and form a strong Young Lions team that can compete for the title.
“When you have 23 players in the Young Lions, you are also possibly opening up 23 slots for other young players for the clubs at senior level. Disbanding the Young Lions would at least halve this pool.”
Who is responsible?
The dismal performances of the Young Lions in Phnom Penh have triggered fans who vented their anger and frustrations on social media, with some calling for officials from the FAS to be axed.
Some local football observers whom The Straits Times spoke to concurred that it is time to look at the appointments at every level of Singapore football and to ensure people of the right expertise are appointed for the right jobs.
Geylang International coach and former national winger Noor Ali pointed to Young Lions coach Philippe Aw, who had publicly blamed the current results on the mistakes from 10 years ago.
He said: “Losing is OK, but the way we lost is not OK. You (Aw) cannot be taking the job and then saying things like that. Why take the team then? Moreover, he was also part of the system 10 years ago.
“Philippe is a friend and whatever he has said is true. But don’t go into a competition with half the battle lost because you publicly suggest the team are not good enough and the players can read about it in the media.”
A coach has to instil the right mentality and belief in the team, just like Barry Whitbread did for Noor Ali and his team at the 1998 Tiger Cup, he added.
Others like Yakob laid the blame on the FAS’ management, stating that it is time for its executive council and general secretary to step aside.
Yakob said: “After Aide Iskandar led the Young Lions to a bronze in 2013 and stayed on for the 2015 Games, they kept changing the coach, sometimes at the last minute. There’s no continuity and stability and they keep making the same mistakes.
“It’s a failure on the part of the exco and the general secretary who make and execute the decisions. They have let us down so many times. If we have the same people there, we have no chance to succeed,” added the former international, who noted that there are qualified people who can take over.
Stressing that every strong football nation has failed before, Sasikumar also noted that “we are in a society where failure is frowned upon and people then avoid facing up to reality”.
He added: “If you are not up to it, step aside and hand the baton to someone with passion, domain expertise, knowledge and energy. Football is an industry now... If we have no culture and no industry, how can we expect our football to thrive?”
But former Hougang United coach Clement Teo, who now leads Cambodia’s Boueng Ket, feels that the blame game is futile as everyone involved in Singapore football has a part to play in its success or failure.
With the UTR project underway, there is still hope at the end of the tunnel, as Teo urged fans and the fraternity to get behind the project and the FAS.
He said: “There are things in place to address some of the issues like the pipeline. I understand there is now talent identification from Under-11s to Under-16s, who will be put into a national development centre. They will play games, have more training during the week and grow.
“As Singaporeans, it’s not in our culture to be patient, we always want to be No. 1.
“We have to see how we can improve and take steps towards doing well in regional age-group competitions before we look at senior tournaments.”
Sasikumar added: “It is not a bad thing to say we are rubbish. To solve the problem, you first have to recognise it. To fix this, we have to not take small measures but make drastic changes.”
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