Foreign talent scheme a stopgap, not a solution
According to the spectator sitting a few rows in front of me, Qiu Li had two problems, his girth and his old passport. One issue seemed to compound the other. The then-Singapore striker was either overweight because he was born in China or his overseas origins made his portly appearance more disagreeable.
In other words, Qiu Li was fat because he was foreign and foreign because he was fat.
In a literal sense, neither criticism was accurate on that balmy night at Jalan Besar in 2011. Qiu Li was Singaporean, the latest beneficiary from the Football Association of Singapore’s Foreign Talent Scheme (FTS). He was a legal Lion. And while he was never likely to be confused for Fann Wong, Qiu Li was hardly obese.
But he was a ceaseless target among a vocal minority in the crowd who couldn’t get past the colour of his old passport.
So good luck Jordan Webb and Sherif El-Masri. They will need it.
The two Canadians, football journeymen until they settled in Singapore in 2010, have now fulfilled FIFA's five-year residency criteria, making them eligible for the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST). They are currently with the Courts Young Lions and largely delivering for their erratic side.
El-Masri, 25, is settled in midfield and Webb, a winger by trade but a goalscorer on instinct, thumped in his sixth of the campaign against Albirex earlier last week. It’s hardly an Indian summer, Webb is still only 27, but he has rediscovered the consistency that contributed to 33 goals in 77 appearances when he was at Hougang United.
Both men are now firmly ensconced in the Young Lions set-up, penciled in for greater things on the national stage, a pair of sticking plasters to perhaps cover ongoing deficiencies within the camp.
And therein lies the crux of every coffee shop conversation, regarding the provocative “f” word. What is the underlying purpose of the FST? Is it a kiasu quick-fix to improve results overnight? Or is it part of a longer-term strategy to woo Singaporeans back to their national game, both as punters and performers?
To say Webb and El-Masri’s impending citizenships threaten to reopen a can of worms doesn’t quite cut it because the worms are not a homogeneous bunch to begin with.
The talent, the country of origin, the sport and the objectives of the national association offer incalculable variables that all impact upon the public’s reaction.
In table tennis, Singapore’s paddlers were either aspirational athletes for local nascent stars or they were “Chinapore” mercenaries. For every “stayer” like coach Jing Junhong, there was a “quitter” like Li Jiawei, who returned to China as soon as she retired.
The stayer/quitter tags are too simplistic to be accurate, but indicative of a complex, politically sensitive issue stripped back to the core to create an almost frivolous distinction between the good (Jing, Aleksandar Duric, Daniel Bennett) and the bad (Li, Mirko Grabovac, Egmar Goncalves.)
The superficial labelling of those who came through the scheme does a disservice to the individuals, glossing over the unique circumstances in their lives to leave nothing but an infantile divide between good and bad, heroes and villains, them and us.
If anything, the blame lies not with the athletes, but with the scheme itself and Singapore’s inane insistence on ticking every box, meeting every target and pacifying the KPI (Key Performance Indicators) counters.
The LionsXII are losing face in the Malaysian Super League? Send in the foreigners. The national sides could use some added depth? Send in the foreigners and fast-track their passports.
A regional trophy or two might be picked up along the way, crowd numbers may briefly rise as bandwagon jumpers watch the mix of locals and newly acquired citizens beat the Malaysians every now and then.
And that’s the best-case scenario. That assumes the foreign injection acts as a stimulant. What if it doesn’t? And even if it does, then what? What happens when Webb and El-Masri retire or lose form?
To hazard a guess, it’ll probably look a lot like what happened when Qiu Li, Fahrudin Mustafic and Shi Jiayi fell out of favour, or when Goncalves and Grabovac upped sticks and returned to their respective countries after a couple of Tiger Cup triumphs.
It’ll be as you were, Singapore, a nation with the unwanted fun fact of being a football country where its majority race is rarely represented; a rich nation with pitiful public funding for its national sport; a green nation opening more parks and gardens than ever before but not enough places to kick a ball around; a nation with an overwhelming, dispiriting apathy towards professional sport as a viable career.
How are a couple of lads from Canada going to help any of that?
If anything, through no fault of their own, their elevation to the national side could be perceived as a hindrance.
Parents believe the pursuit of a football career is a fool’s errand. So rather than tackle a society’s indifference towards the national game, officials address the immediate shortfall. They use foreigners as silicone. They plug gaps. So parents say the pursuit of a football career is a fool’s errand.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And, to compound the disquiet, if foreign-born reinforcements are not superior upgrades on local personnel, then the few Singaporean parents who do endorse their children’s football careers may quickly get cold feet.
All of which has nothing to do with Webb and El-Masri.
They are committed, industrious footballers who want to play for their adopted country, a right that belongs to them just as much as it belongs to Spain’s Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa.
But the concern is they will be targeted. They will be criticised, like their predecessors, for benefiting from a shortsighted system that focuses only on the symptoms, rather than a cure.