Analysis: As SEA Games loom, is Singapore falling behind in the youth stakes?

With the SEA Games less than two months away, and with growing concerns over the playing time of young stars across the region, FourFourTwo did a detailed analysis of how active various leagues are in promoting the next wave of talent – with the results particularly damning for Singapore.

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The embattled football scene in Singapore has reached a new regional low – this time in terms of willingness to hand young stars a chance – while the nation setting the benchmark for active promotion of youth is Indonesia.

Outside the Young Lions project, which is at least giving youngsters exposure, albeit with questionable benefits, are the rest of the S.League clubs doing enough to foster and encourage fledgling Singaporeans?

In a remarkable feat ... every single one of the top 18 clubs in Liga 1 has started at least two players aged 22 or younger

In Indonesia, meanwhile, the fruits of their investment in junior talent are already flowing through to the national team.

Two days before Singapore laboured to an Asian Cup qualifying loss against Taiwan, where they turned out a side with an average age of more than 27 – and with two players in their mid-30s sitting on the bench as unused substitutes – Indonesia rolled Cambodia on the road with a starting side that featured half a dozen players aged 22 or under.

Moreover, a trio of players aged 18, 20 and 22 came off the bench, with one of those, Hanif Sjahbandi, providing the assist as his teammate at Arema, Bagas Adi, grabbed the late second goal that made the victory safe.

That pair have started more than half of their club’s league matches this season, which was the benchmark FourFourTwo used in our analysis of just how willing clubs are to hand youth a chance.

Adam is one of few youngsters getting a chance in Singapore. Photo: Home United

Whilst it’s easy to focus on the band of mostly over-the-hill foreign ‘stars’ that are – with a handful of exceptions – clogging things up in Indonesia, the real story to emerge from the return of a truly professional league is the wave of youth that is lighting up the competition.

Yes it is a requirement for clubs in the new league to feature three youth players at some point during the match, yet it's worth noting that many have gone above and beyond this minimum requirement

In a remarkable feat that few leagues across the world can boast, every single one of the top 18 clubs in Liga 1 has started at least two players aged 22 or younger in more than half of their league matches to date and several have used at least double that amount.

A total of just four players across six (S.League) clubs with our benchmark age have started half of the available matches – that’s nothing short of a disgrace

It’s not just in midfield or attack, where you would expect younger players to be given an opportunity to shine, but also in defence and even on a few occasions in goal where those of the ‘Olympic’ generation are being given the chance to impress.

Moreover, it’s an approach that’s clearly working as six of the clubs inside the top 10 on the league standings have started players aged 22 or under in at least half of their matches to date.

Looking, for example, at the recent match between Persija and Sriwijaya, all six Indonesian midfielders across the eight in total that started for the two clubs were aged 24 or under.

That kind of heavy emphasis on youth is being repeated right across the league.

In Singapore, however, the situation is almost entirely at the other end of the spectrum.

Although naturally counter-balanced by the presence of the Young Lions – whose abolition was called for in a recent FFT column – the other half a dozen local clubs have done little whatsoever to push the cause for youth.

Indeed, none of Geylang International, Warriors FC or Tampines Rovers has started a single player aged 22 or younger in half of their matches to date.

Both Hougang (Lionel Tan) and Balestier (Huzaifah Aziz) have only done so with the lone player, whilst Home United have with both Irfan Fandi and Adam Swandi.

A total of just four players across six clubs with our benchmark age have started half of the available league matches – that’s nothing short of a disgrace and if the clubs aren’t going to take on that responsibility for themselves then it’s time the S.League imposed it upon them, as has been the case so successfully in Indonesia.

[NEXT PAGE: How more of Southeast Asia stacks up]