Would Omar Abdulrahman make it in Singapore?

The UAE have enjoyed a steady rise in Asian football, despite widespread apathy to domestic league football. John Duerden examines the lessons Singapore can learn from the Gulf nation.

The Asian Cup final was played in front of almost 80,000 fans in Sydney between two heavyweights of the continental game. South Korea and Australia are not going to be rivals of Singapore anytime soon.

The challenge is not to have a golden generation – any country can have that – but to create conditions so talent is produced on a consistent basis.

- Duerden

Yet had things gone a little differently, the final could have been between the United Arab Emirates and Iraq and it is not crazy to suggest that, in the right circumstances, Singapore could compete with these two. One has a population that is not much bigger and the other has not played more than a handful of games on home soil for a decade with a domestic scene that can best be described as messy. It may be a slightly simplistic comparison to make but at the very least it provides hope.

Some of it is luck. If we ask whether Singapore can produce an Omar Abdulrahman – probably the most talented player in Asia – then it should be pointed out that the UAE never really produced the playmaker in the first place. Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, the 23 year-old only arrived in the Emirates after failing to get Saudi citizenship for his family.

What did happen though is that he arrived at a good time when there was other good young talent coming through and people at the top were starting to realise that throwing money at the upper echelons of the game was not the best way to build. Players like Ali Mabkhout, Amer Abdulrahman, Hamdan Al Kamali, Ahmed Khalil came through. With Mahdi Ali at the helm, young talent grew together, winning the 2008 U19 Asian Championships, then silver at the 2010 Asian Games and then impressing at the 2012 Olympics.

Soon after coach Ali was made boss of the senior team which was good news for the young stars he had worked with before. Coach and players have grown together. There is trust and respect. Spending time with the UAE team in Australia last month, this was easy to see. At press conferences, they finish each others sentences.

Ali Mabkhout and the UAE team were impressive during the recently concluded Asian Cup

This was obviously an unusual situation. There was plenty of luck but authorities in Dubai at least recognised what was already happening and did what they could to smooth the way. UAE has encouraged clubs to invest in youth teams and some of these academies are very good. And when you have a player like Omar who comes up through the ranks and is competing with good foreign talent like Jorge Valdivia then you have the basics in place.

A little investment in youth football, high quality foreign stars and a federation that does what it can to give things, at least nationally, a nudge in the right direction, has helped UAE. Yet UAE has a long way to go and has only recently started to consider such things. This is not really a football country. League attendances are low with fans not in the habit of going to stadiums to watch local teams. There is money and that helps but it is not everything.

The challenge is not to have a golden generation – any country can have that – but to create conditions so talent is produced on a consistent basis.

A raw Omar Abdulrahman can be born in Singapore. The question is whether he starts playing football in the first place, and if he does, can he be identified and, if he is, does he have access to the right coaching. When it comes down to it, this is what youth development is. Football in Singapore may not have the money that the UAE has but it has certain advantages.

For the FAS, identifying talent and coaching should already be second nature. Singapore is a well-organised city and in theory, this makes it the easiest place in the world to identify talent. If there are kids playing football, they should be seen. Having the right coaches is trickier but the kind of thing that a competent federation should now be able to organise.

It's not unusual to see only a few hundred people at Arabian Gulf League games

While it may be tougher to get Singapore kids to play football than counterparts in Dubai or Abu Dhabi the streets of these Middle Eastern cities are not exactly teeming with kids playing impromptu games. In Singapore there is always talk of how hard it is to get kids to play with the focus on education complicating matters. These pressures exist – at least to the same extent and there is a good argument to be made that they are greater – in Tokyo and Seoul but Japan and South Korea are Asia's two most successful football powers. Despite the huge pressures, kids in these countries play in reasonable numbers. Sure, there is a more established route to professionalism and a career but, especially with Korea, it is not as established as people may think.

There are options. Singapore could do more with the universities, make football more part of school life like is starting to happen in China or require league clubs to have various youth teams like in Japan, or to get involved in or organise regional schools' tournaments like happens in part of South Korea. Or maybe there is a special way for Singapore to go. Perhaps these new media partners can use their international experience to make some concrete suggestions.

So the question of when can Singapore produce an Omar Abdulrahman is almost the wrong one because he is out there already, or will be at some point in the future. The question is whether he is playing football and if he is, can he be found and then improved. At the very least, Singapore can deal with the latter two parts of that equation even if the first may take a little longer.