4 big problems with Singapore football

Lions’ AFF Cup debacle: A timely wake-up call for Singapore football

Singapore's players react after losing 3-1 to Malaysia in their Suzuki Cup Group B match at the National Stadium in Singapore

Singapore’s players react after losing 3-1 to Malaysia in their Suzuki Cup Group B match at the National Stadium …

By Michael Y.P. Ang, on Yahoo! Sports

The knives are out and it’s hunting season.

Singapore’s spectacular — if somewhat unfair — surrender of the AFF Cup title on Saturday against arch-rivals Malaysia has sparked strident calls for coach Bernd Stange’s head to roll, amid all sorts of mayhem and soul-searching.

But let’s be realistic and take a step back — even if the Lions hadn’t lost, would it have meant Singapore football is all fine and dandy? Let’s kid ourselves not.

Early last year, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin claimed that the Lions’ unprecedented fourth ASEAN title showed that “the development of Singapore football is on the right track“. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

And even if the FAS manages to somehow assemble a technical team of former World Cup-winning coaches, with goalkeeping and defensive coaches assisting a head coach, will the Lions rise to the next level?

The answer is obvious, “no”. Not until four major problems muting the Lions’ roar are addressed.

1. Weak player-development

In August, the Under-21 Young Lions suffered a dubious first, losing all five matches at an ASEAN tournament, including crushing defeats by Vietnam (0-4) and Indonesia (0-6), both of whom fielded their under-19 sides. Singapore had the worst attack (two goals scored) and the worst defence (19 goals conceded).

But the FAS dismissed everyone’s genuine concerns, with Stange claiming the FAS deliberately sent a weaker team to give “the Cubs their first international exposure this year“.

So after all the talk about Centres of Excellence (COEs), National Football Academies (NFAs), it’s come down to this?

Former Lions player Rafi Ali summed it up best when he said: “What is most glaring (about Singapore) is the lack of basic technique, such as passing and movement. We have to look at it and stop giving excuses. The most important thing is to grow the players technically, so the national coach has a lot of players to look at.”

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrates with LionsXII players after they clinched the Malaysian Super League title in July last year, rekindling the city-state's glory days in the competition after a nearly two-decade absence (AFP)Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong celebrates with LionsXII players after they clinched the Malaysian Super …

2. Home comforts

Continually playing in the S-League or Malaysian league won’t help the Lions rise to the next level. Yet, instead of looking beyond Singapore and Malaysia, the FAS formed a national developmental squad to compete in the M-League.

Singapore football writer Neil Humphreys got it spot on, when he asked why the country’s football success — or lack thereof — has always been set against the “umbilical cord” of Malaysia — from the Malaysia Cup, to the Malaysian Super League to even international games.

It’s time to aim higher, as former AFC secretary general Peter Velappan so astutely points out.

But yet, look where we’re at: Singapore’s national captain Shahril Ishak plays in Malaysia’s second-tier league, a year after leading the LionsXII to the MSL title.

Current standout and face of the Lions, Hariss Harun, last year rejected a full-time contract from one of Portugal’s leading clubs. He now plays for a Johor club in the M-League.

If the greatest player Singapore has ever produced, Fandi Ahmad, had persevered and extended his two-year career with FC Groningen in the Dutch league in the 1970s, he might have paved the way for a future generation of players to be inspired. But that’s a lot of what ifs.

Fandi’s sons Irfan and Ikhsan, currently based in Chile, offer a glimmer of hope but remember: both teens are also eligible to represent South Africa, their mother’s native country, when the time comes. (Whom will they choose? Stay tuned.)

Another young starlet Adam Swandi also offers hope, but worryingly, he’s also expressed concerns over National Service — that perennial headache for young athletes — and the lack of playing time in France.

3. No money, no talk

Some within Singapore’s football fraternity have asked why Singapore’s corporate giants are not playing their part, even though realistically, sponsoring local football offers little or no significant benefit. Such exhortations are like hoping for money to fall from the sky.

Who wants to sponsor a league that attracts a mere few hundred to most games? And the FAS isn’t helping itself by stubbornly using essentially the same approach to running the S-League, which hasn’t been part of — let’s face it — mainstream Singapore for almost all of its 19 years.

Singapore football is increasingly being perceived as a socially non-inclusive sport. This makes corporations more unwilling to get involved.

Singapore's Gabriel Quak Jun Yi, left, and Thailand's Adisak Kraisorn compete for the ball during their AFF Suzuki Cup Group B soccer match in Singapore, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)Singapore’s Gabriel Quak Jun Yi, left, and Thailand’s Adisak Kraisorn compete for the ball during their AFF Suzuki …

4. Where are the Chinese?

During the semi-final of the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games (renamed SEA Games in 1977), Singapore had seven ethnic Chinese players. Four Chinese Singaporeans participated in the 1983 SEA Games final, while only Steven Tan and Lim Tong Hai played in the 1993 semi-final.

Today, Gabriel Quak is the only Lion from the ethnic majority.

This is not about race, it’s about numbers. Do the math — drawing up a national team from roughly one-fifth of the population clearly means we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

To its credit, the FAS has acknowledged this issue. Its general manager of Youth Development (JCOE) S. Varapha Rajan also spoke of the challenge to keep talented youth players (read: Chinese) interested in playing the game between the ages of 16-19.

The Singapore Sports School was supposed to have been the solution. 10 years on, we’re still going around in circles.

The FAS may be working with the Ministry of Education and schools but I’m not that hopeful. If player salaries in the S-League continue to be extremely low, why would any player with a university degree choose a football career?

This photograph taken on November 29, 2014 shows Singapore coach Bernd Stange reacting after his team lost to Malaysia …

New coach?

It’s not unusual for a coach to leave his job shortly after his team gets eliminated from a competition.

But frankly it doesn’t matter who the coach is — with the deplorable current state of affairs, the Lions will take an unacceptable length of time, if ever, to reach the next level.

And if it took this latest defeat by Malaysia to finally wake everyone up, it may be a small price to pay.

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. He worked at the former Singapore Sports Council before covering local and international sports for Channel NewsAsia for several years. Follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports for commentaries on sports issues that matter to Singaporeans.

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