Singapore produces Pokemon Go players – not hungry young Lions

Sundram’s reliance on veterans like Daniel Bennett reveals an underlying lack of fresh talent and commitment to the football cause, argues Neil Humphreys... 

Daniel Bennett was Singapore’s best player. He often is.

Ramrod straight, shoulders squared and eyes everywhere, the centre-back was a reassuring presence against Bahrain, keeping his head when all around him were losing theirs.

Three clumsy penalties killed off any hopes of victory in the 3-1 loss, but Bennett never faltered. No frills, no problems, the Geylang International defender was a metronome of consistency.

He’s also 38 years old. He’ll be 39 in January. Previous coach Bernd Stange couldn’t live with him. Current coach V. Sundramoothy can’t live without him.

Bennett will return for the Suzuki Cup, a tournament he has already won three times. At 38, he remains one of Singapore’s bravest and most reliable defenders, a model of professionalism.

The same was said of Aleksandar Duric when he finally retired at the age of 44, still fitter than colleagues half his age, still raging against the dying of the light.

There’s an obvious pattern emerging here.

Baihakki Khaizan, Bennett’s partner and redoubtable Lion for more than a decade, will turn 33 in January. If goalkeeper Hassan Sunny is included, four of Singapore’s back five against Bahrain were over 30.

Still a model pro – Bennett shows no sign of stopping

Singapore’s succession policy looks sketchy, with Sundram overly reliant on the same established core of veterans who lifted the Suzuki Cup four years ago.

Up front, Khairul Amri looked a forgotten soul, a lost Lion in a Wolfe poem, God’s Lonely Man. He’s 31 and still Singapore’s only reliable forward of note, a striker without striking competition.

Long-term absentee Fazrul Nawaz will miss the Suzuki Cup and plans to return for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign, when he’ll be almost 32.

Who replaces them in the short to medium-term is anyone’s guess.

Singapore’s succession policy looks sketchy, with Sundram overly reliant on the same established core of veterans who lifted the Suzuki Cup four years ago.

Even Tampines Rovers captain Fahrudin Mustafic has expressed an interest in returning for the regional tournament in November, suggesting his dwindling pace is less relevant than his experience.

The trend of relying on players aged over 30 is a worrying sign for Singapore

Fahrudin is 35 and could make a positive contribution at the Suzuki Cup. Whether that’s a cause for celebration depends on one’s point of view. Every coach craves continuity, but only if it’s through choice rather than necessity.

Sundram’s squad increasingly resembles Dad’s Army as he struggles to plug the obvious gaps not being filled by younger, hungrier talent.

Joseph Schooling's talent was born in Singapore, but his hunger was really made in the United States.

Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin and Gabriel Quak represent the mid-twenty-somethings, the bridge between Suzuki Cup tournaments, but Sundram’s reliance upon the old guard suggests that Singapore is no country for young men.

More worryingly, the day before the senior Lions succumbed in Bahrain, the under-19s were systematically dismantled 4-0, their egos bruised and their confidence battered by the voracious Bahrainis.

Despite the sterling efforts of the ActiveSG Football Academy in developing kids younger and earlier, not to mention Michel Sablon’s laudable blueprint, the production line appears to be stalling.

Important questions need to be asked about the hunger of Singapore's future internationals

The FAS’ technical director faces technical, rather touchy, issues beyond his control, i.e. how can a country find a swimmer capable of dethroning Michael Phelps but cannot find a centre-back capable of replacing a 38-year-old Bennett?

The answer is as obvious as it is sensitive.

Joseph Schooling was trained, moulded and battle-hardened by foreign coaches in a foreign environment using foreign facilities to take on foreign competitors blessed with – and this is the really damning part – a foreign mindset.

Schooling left a boy and returned a medal winner. His talent was born in Singapore, but his hunger was really made in the United States.

Both are affluent countries, but the air-conditioned nation struggles with the hunger bit.

Singapore’s under-19 coach Takuya Inoue admitted that his players were “afraid” to play against physically imposing footballers and failed to handle the pressure.

It’s an alarming admission, leaving us to ponder how and why the bigger Bahrainis were so intimidating. Are they dipped in tubs of testosterone?

Singapore boasts state-of-the-art, muscle-making facilities at all its sports centres. What it may lack is the application. If there isn’t a will, there isn’t a way.

Schooling's upbringing in the United States was instrumental to his eventual victory

It’s so easy to blame Sundram, his threadbare squad, the paucity of youthful alternatives and that old chestnut about mental strength when, in fact, they are all conditioned by their stifling environment.

The FAS acknowledges that youth coaching must be improved and Sablon’s initiatives rightly focus on better football science, medicine and scouting to create pathways.

But if the pathways are littered with external obstacles – such as the work-study conundrum, National Service, poor S.League salaries and nationwide apathy – little with change.

It’s so easy to blame Sundram, his threadbare squad and the paucity of youthful alternatives when, in fact, they are all conditioned by their stifling environment.

Hunger isn’t some abstract concept to be wearily trotted out by lazy pundits. It’s a cultivated desire to succeed in professional football that must be nurtured in the living room, in the classroom and then out on a pitch.

Hunger begins at home. If the country doesn’t care about Sundram’s ageing squad, why should its kids?

Unless the collective will exists to fully embrace the national game and address the needs of its production line, the Lions’ talent pool will only shrink further.

Led by Bennett and Baihakki, the old guard’s endurance is both a testament to their tenacity and an indictment of a society with very different priorities.

Singapore once produced hungry young Lions. Now it produces Pokemon Go players.