Youth development for dummies: Sablon's blueprint for Singapore
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Having failed in the recent AFF Suzuki Cup and SEA Games campaigns, Singapore football appears at a crossroads. There is no doubt it is still the most popular sport in the country, but the national set-up's inability to win local hearts and minds is a genuine concern. The Lions have failed to make much headway when it comes to their FIFA rankings, currently mired in 155th place, while talented young players are few and far between.
Where is the next Fandi Ahmad or the next V Sundramoorthy? Singapore turned 50 this year, but football success seems a thing of the past. The goalless draw against Japan was greeted with much fanfare, but only because it appeared an outlier result given the country's indifferent form of late.
Enter Sablon, appointed FAS technical director just this April. Having spent the last few months gaining an insight into how things work on our island nation, the Belgian with an impressive CV is ready to roll up his sleeves and embark on an ambitious project to revamp Singapore football from the ground up...
Get the basics right
Sablon gets right to the point. It's not hard to see why.
"What I am finding out is that the players, including those in the national teams, are missing basic abilities," he says. "Not all of them, but [for example] a good player who’s one of the best players in the team is missing things.
"You have to start when you’re 15 years old."
It's a damning viewpoint that has since been corroborated by Richard Tardy, the head coach of Singapore's national youth teams. But how bad is it exactly?
You take all the players there, you ask them to pass from 20 metres ... not four or five of them can do it with their weaker foot
"For example, the use of the weaker foot. It’s very easy eh?" Sablon ponders rhetorically. "You take all the players there, you ask them to pass from 20 metres, or when they are old enough 25 metres, with one bump before they pass, not four or five of them can do it with their weaker foot.
"You cannot believe it when you do specific exercises with those boys, you can see it after 10 minutes that some players have no coordination. When you [have drills where they are supposed to] turn around and jump, you can see that some people are struggling with their feet.
"It’s very strange. So those things you don’t learn by default, you learn when you are 15 years old, like how I [used to be able to] stand with my hands on a chair. If I was a striker and I had to jump against a goalkeeper, I was strong enough to challenge him.
"It's the things you learn outside football and that’s the fun games: throwing balls, bouncing balls, picking players, avoiding players – all these movements help you to be ready to start the learning process of playing football."
Is it too late for these older players, then?
"I give the example of [Everton striker Romelu] Lukaku all the time," Sablon explains. "He was here in the National Stadium [in the recent Barclays Asia Trophy], did you see his ball control? The first touch he took, the ball went two metres from his feet.
"It’s the same weakness he had five years ago, so he didn’t improve. It’s very difficult to improve technically at that age.
"[It's a problem when] players don't go to a technical screening. When you go for a technical screening, you can see exactly what they can and cannot do.
"Those who are 19 or 20 now, they can improve if they work hard. We are working on the level of the national youth teams in order to make better what we can make better.
"But at the same time that’s what we’ve started today with the grassroots. We have to start from the beginning."
A larger talent pool
"You need 15 to 16 good players before you can have a good national team," Sablon says. "If you have an exceptional generation, then you can perhaps go for a final and win a title."
It sounds pretty simple, but how many of our current batch of national team players can be considered high-performing regulars? A common complaint has been that most of Singapore's current crop are often drawn from our representatives in Malaysian league football, the LionsXII, or development outfit Young Lions. While other S.League footballers have occasionally made up the numbers, competition for places in the national set-up hasn't been particularly fierce.
Half-hearted appeals for more inclusions from the local league have become the norm now, but there aren't many candidates setting the competition alight in a way that would make the national coach sit up and take notice. Put simply, Singapore's current talent pool is too shallow to breed success.
The more players you have, the less chances you have to miss the talented players
"It’s important. The more players you have, the less chances you have to miss the talented players," Sablon continues. "It's the same in Belgium, which is a small country where we have to work on not missing too many talents. We lost too many talented players at one point, so we had to change a lot of things [to prevent it from continuing].
"It's the same here. Who is scouting? Who is going to select the players? It's astonishing."
Singapore's new technical director has great ambitions and his 187-page grassroots manual is the first step. By encouraging more children aged between six and nine to pick up the sport, the hope is that this will lead to a larger talent pool from which the country can draw on in years to come. The target – 5,000 kids signed up to the FAS Cubs programme by year's end – seems ambitious, but Sablon estimates it will lead to at least 250 participants aged between 10-13 (what he terms the 'golden age') continuing with the national programme as they grow older.
"Some things we do already are good, we will attempt to implement it in the system," Sablon says. "You cannot organise grassroots separately from all other things and make an island on an island. You have to see it in a complete vision.
"It’s our responsibility to receive [these 250] players, to bring them to the seven centres of excellence, and to give them good coaches and good training. That’s our responsibility and if we do that, in two or three years you will see the difference."