Belgian guru Michel Sablon lauds Singapore’s 2034 World Cup target
Former Belgium and FAS technical director happy to hear players could benefit from NS concessions
The Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) former technical director Michel Sablon has backed the Unleash the Roar national football project, which aims to raise the standard of the sport in the country and has set an "aspirational target" of qualifying for World Cup 2034.
Calling the 2034 goal an "excellent target", he told The New Paper in a phone interview from Dubai: "It's good in football to set targets, that's what Japan did also, when they wanted to qualify for the World Cup years ago.
"The second thing is that the year is 2034, that means there is still 13 years and when you divide the different age categories, it should be possible to develop players properly...
"What I would make as an additional suggestion is to be careful that in all the different age categories, the right programme is being used to develop the proper age category."
The Belgian, 73, explained that from 6-10, the focus should be on agility and natural coordination; 10-14 is the "golden age of technical ability"; 14-18 is a time to work on tactical aspects such as teamwork and positioning; while 18-22 is the "step from a youth player to a professional".
Sablon is no stranger to creating a blueprint for footballing success. He is credited with helping produce the programme which helped his native Belgium facilitate its golden generation of stars like Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
The Red Devils are currently world No. 1 in the Fifa rankings.
He was unable to replicate that success during his 2015-2018 tenure here, admitting in his final interview before departing: "I am not totally satisfied with the progress that we made in my time here. It went slower than I expected, and hoped."
Sablon, who was the technical director of the Royal Belgian Football Association from 2001 to 2010 and part of the team's coaching staff at three World Cups, is now the technical director of the United Arab Emirates.
His fingerprints remain evident on the Unleash the Roar project. A national football curriculum, which is one of its eight pillars, will be created by his successor Joseph Palatsides by building on previous syllabi by Sablon and his predecessor Slobodan Pavkovic.
The Belgian's backing for the project comes despite the fact that he had previously complained of resistance from private academies and schools to his syllabus.
Former Lions defender and current St Joseph's Institution coach Kadir Yahaya pointed to that when highlighting the difficulties in implementing a standardised national football curriculum.
"For me, it will be quite hard. Slobodan did try to implement it in schools, what happened? Sablon, with his wealth of experience and his blueprint that help produce Hazard, he came to Singapore and also tried to implement it," said the 53-year-old, who coached the Singapore team that won the Youth Olympics bronze medal in 2010.
"I don't know what the take-up rate will be."
FAS deputy president Bernard Tan acknowledged that coaches may implement only "maybe 80 per cent" of the curriculum, "but that is acceptable, so long as there is the right spirit and we are aligned".
Before Sablon's departure in December 2018, he also said the "culture" and "top-down society" in Singapore meant that the plans he put in place took longer to bear fruit.
He also cited difficulties in finding agreements with the authorities over allowing players undergoing national service to train more regularly.
Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Eric Chua said on Monday that his ministry is working with Mindef on "support avenues for eligible footballers, including early enlistment, leave and time-off for NSFs to train, as well as opportunities to continue training and playing at the very top levels while fulfilling their NS obligations".
When asked for more details on the NS concessions at a press conference on Tuesday, Sport Singapore chief executive Lim Teck Yin said that this would mean working within existing initiatives.
Said Sablon: "Now there is an opportunity with a minister, which is (former FAS vice-president) Edwin Tong, who has a very important position. He has the power to put this problem on the table and to discuss it.
"I'm very happy it has happened and it will help a lot because players in Singapore... disappear (from the football scene) after national service."
A veteran local football official, who asked to remain anonymous, however, said his biggest reservation regarding the Unleash the Roar project is the NS aspect.
He explained: "National service (and) how they are going to deal with it is going to be very interesting at a time when there is a dwindling male population.
"If you are in a (combat) vocation in the army, would that vocation allow you to continue training as a professional and play football on the weekend.
"I don't know whether that is really achievable. Let's just put it this way, I will need more convincing."