Managing any of Singapore’s development squads will remain a poisoned chalice unless serious root and branch reform takes place, argues Neil Humphreys.
Singapore football’s coaching merry-go-round begins again, but the next man clambers aboard with only one hand. The other will be clutching that perennial poisoned chalice.
The future of the island’s national sport depends not on a forlorn figure in the dugout, but on an intransigent, parochial mindset. If the country is serious about taking on the world, then it should set its sights beyond the Causeway.
In the past, the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games have been disparagingly referred to as the Kampong Games with competitors fixated only on beating the neighbours, but that myopic perception is rapidly changing.
As Singapore’s incredible medal booty continues to pile up, the quote of the SEA Games came from a non-competitor.
When Joseph Schooling smashed Ang Peng Siong’s 33-year national record in the 50m freestyle, Ang immediately recalibrated the young swimmer’s targets. Schooling should look beyond the Asean region and towards Asia. Japan and China must be next and then the Olympics.
The SEA Games is a means to a greater end, an encouraging stepping-stone towards greater glory. What’s past is prologue.
As swimming looks to the future, Singapore’s national sport (an increasingly dubious claim, considering football’s ongoing struggles and swimming’s successes) is stuck in the past.
In an understandably desperate bid to rekindle interest in local football, Singapore rejoined the Malaysian competition. Without wishing to take anything away from the Lions XII’s fine victory in the Malaysian FA Cup Final last month, the squad’s purpose remains a confusing mishmash of intentions.
The Lions XII purport to promote rising talent, but pluck the country’s best from a dying domestic league to make up the numbers.
Fandi Ahmad and the now resigned Aide Iskandar had to participate in a bizarre player exchange. The club versus country dilemma is familiar to managers everywhere. But Singapore must be one of the few nations that play out a country versus country battle.
The Young Lions quartet - Faris Ramli, Sahil Suhaimi, Christopher van Huizen and Zakir Samsudin – left the SEA Games training camp to join the Lions XII on their FA Cup quest. By the time they returned to their SEA Games duties, lethargic legs laboured across Jalan Besar’s heavy pitch.
The squad switching highlights a kind of schizophrenia. Whose priorities prevail here? Is the ultimate goal to win gold with a developmental squad at the SEA Games or to pick up the odd silver pot in another country’s domestic league?
Taking on – and defeating – the next-door neighbours always add a jingoistic spring to the step, but the narrow focus is matched only by its limited ambition. Singapore’s Lions were beating Malaysia’s best more than 20 years ago. To do so again now represents something of a pyrrhic victory. The gap between Singapore and the rest of Asia is wider than ever.
The Lions XII have resurrected a smidgeon of interest in the old Causeway rivalry, but it means little to anyone raised almost entirely on a cable TV diet of European football.
Ideally, the SEA Games squad should be the Lions XII in its entirety, effectively offering the same players ongoing preparations for the biennial regional tournament and permitting them a degree of understanding that only comes with year-round daily training.
In some ways, Aide coached with one hand permanently tied behind his back.
His decision to call up Amy Recha and Stanely Ng in place of Irfan Fandi and Faris Ramli against Indonesia triggered an inevitable kneejerk reaction. But that’s a minor brushstroke across a much bigger picture.
Aide, a decent, honourable man, was clearly working with finite resources.
The lazy argument that Singapore’s diminutive size presents too great a hurdle to clear is archaic nonsense, easily swatted aside by World Cup quarter-finalists Costa Rica (4.7 million population), Uruguay (3.4 million) and Norway (5.1 million). Even Belgium, World Cup darkhorses in Brazil last year, has a population of only 11 million, greater than Singapore, but hardly an oceanic pool of talent.
Belgium is noted because Michel Sablon, the technical director of the Football Association of Singapore, was appointed to replicate his success in his homeland; i.e. take a small country with limited talent stocks and maximise its potential.
Sablon has already identified the flaws. Better coaches are required to follow specific training programmes from the under-7s onwards, with each year offering a different programme to monitor a young footballer’s evolution.
So far, so obvious. What is less palatable and more sensitive is the racial majority thing. Singapore is not Belgium. Football hasn’t been viewed as a viable career by 75 per cent of its population since the 1990s.
Sablon’s greatest challenge must be to convince the Chinese to treat football like swimming, a sport that facilitates academic and athletic progress simultaneously.
If football is to have any chance of succeeding in Singapore, it needs to accommodate work and play through scholarships and sponsorships and emulate the Schooling model. He studies and trains at the Bolles School in the US. Neither his sporting nor his academic potential are at risk of being compromised.
Convince the kiasu among us that professional football also offers educational benefits and SEA Games coaches might end up with more options on the bench in crucial contests against Indonesia.
It’s time for Singapore football to question its long-term purpose. Does it really want to follow in Schooling’s slipstream and shoot for stars beyond South-east Asia’s hazy skies or is it content to simply embarrass Malaysia once in a while?
If it’s the latter, then it truly doesn’t matter who succeeds Aide.
Regardless of the name and the resume, the next Young Lions coach will continue to be hamstrung by insufficient resources.
As it stands, the FAS might as well recruit the deckchair handler on the Titanic.
All images: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo