Fandi, Sundram must work quickly to bridge talent gap

New youth coach and old Dream Team colleague not only need to produce players, but also convince fed-up fans that the on-going nightmare will eventually end, argues Neil Humphreys... 

Here’s the politically sensitive problem. When it comes to Singapore football, public patience is thin to the point of anorexic.

The Lions take on Malaysia in a Causeway Challenge this week with an untested blend of inexperienced youngsters and recalled veterans.

So the appointment of Fandi Ahmad as head youth coach seems impeccably timed.

With Fandi and senior coach V. Sundramoorthy taking shelter under the widening umbrella of the Football Association of Singapore’s coaching staff, the Dream Team of yesterday have theoretically come together to end today’s nightmare.

Fandi’s new role appears a natural fit, playing to his strengths, his irrepressible charisma and his standing among kids from all walks of life.

When Fandi talks, they listen.

But there are other factors to consider. The farcical events played out recently at both the aborted FAS elections and the abandoned meeting at the Asian Football Confederation served only to reiterate the game’s impoverished reputation among its jaded followers.

Rock bottom was reached some time ago.  Administrators seem determined to push on through to the Earth’s core. At least, that’s the perception. The thought of Fandi defecting to Pahang promised to be the cherry on the moulding cake.

And that’s only an immediate consideration. The long-term concern remains the talent gap.


Sundram has had to turn to veterans Bennett and Mustafic in recent months

Fandi’s appointment coincided with Sundramoothy’s decision to recall Mustafic Fahrudin. The Tampines midfielder provides a solid defensive anchor. But he’s also 35 and hasn’t featured for the Lions since the 2012 Suzuki Cup.

Now he joins fellow veteran Daniel Bennett in Sundram’s squad, along with three uncapped players - Syazwan Buhari, Shawal Anuar and Fandi’s son Irfan.

Sundram cannot be faulted for failings not of his making. The clock’s ticking on his one-year contract. He’s not in a position to build for the future when he doesn’t have one, not on paper at least.

He hopes for a credible showing in the Causeway Challenge and improved performances in the Suzuki Cup and that’s essentially the extent of his remit.

The future looks bright, but the present looks distinctly murky.

And that’s where the contradiction presents itself.

Sundram gets a year to build something presentable - and ideally successful - from a gang of callow youths and reclaimed retirees.

Fandi gets three years to ensure the kids are all right.

The future looks bright, but the present looks distinctly murky.

So apart from coming on board as a coach, Fandi may also act as an emollient, his nationwide popularity necessary to soothe the potentially painful experiences ahead.


Singapore needs to quickly develop its youth teams

In essence, the FAS have laid out an international (and some say, expensive) banquet with Belgian, French and Singaporean fare and there’s hardly anyone in line at the moment to eat it.

Head chef Michel Sablon has everything in place for a veritable feast, publishing a commendable blueprint that makes the most of limited resources.

His French assistant, Richard Tardy, handles the 13 to 18-year-olds, essentially implementing the blueprint of small-sided games, all playing 4-3-3 and so forth.

And Fandi will now take care of the 18 to 23-year-olds, with his finest gems elevated to Sundram’s senior side.

The division of labour is obvious. The pathways are clear and the journey from also-ran to Asian powerhouse can begin in earnest.

But the process depends upon the one commodity that local football doesn’t have, something that Sundram soon realised he didn’t have.



Sundram does not have time on his side

The local game lost the luxury of time when it lost the patience of long-suffering followers.

Three-year plans and long-term blueprints are privileges that the likes of Germany, Spain and even Belgium earned after years of establishing a respected football infrastructure and a rock-solid fan base.

Singapore has neither.

Even though Sablon’s plans are excellent, they require several years at least to come to fruition. In the meantime, the thought of a “darkest before the dawn” scenario, a period of further failure as we wait for the next crop to flourish may be hard to take.

He recognised the debilitating impact of too many crushing losses so he dragged dependable warhorses like Bennett and Mustafic out of retirement to calm fraying nerves.

There’s little public tolerance for more shocking defeats and early tournament exits. Some may not wait around for the sport’s projected recovery.

Even Sundram couldn’t. He recognised the debilitating impact of too many crushing losses so he dragged dependable warhorses like Bennett and Mustafic out of retirement to calm fraying nerves.

Fandi’s role should be much the same in the next couple of years.

When the old guard finally retires for good and Sablon’s blueprint really kicks in, they’ll be a lengthy period of transition, even confusion, as young players and coaches adjust to the Belgian’s model.


When the old guards like Shahril retires, there will be a period of transition

Fandi must be on hand to reassure the jaded public and a cynical media that, despite the inevitable setbacks, Singapore is finally on the road to some sort of redemption. His influence as diplomat may prove just as important as anything he does in the dugout.

Certainly, his appointment has eased tension this week and scored the FAS some welcome brownie points.

Like Sundram, Fandi’s name still counts for something.

But his name alone can’t save the sport’s damaged reputation. To do that, he really must nurture the next generation, and quickly.  

Photos: FAS