The Asian Cup, LionsXII and the S.League: Zainudin opens up
Singapore went into their double-headed home stand against group frontrunners Japan and Syria in this joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying campaign quietly optimistic of picking up more points.
Boasting a healthy 10 points through five games, the talk from the Lions’ den was a target of four points from these two fixtures – namely, another draw with Japan and then victory over the Syrians.
Yet the reality proved far bleaker than that rosy outlook. Firstly Singapore were probably fortunate to only suffer a 3-0 defeat against a sublimely talented Japanese side that was clearly in the mood to atone for that 0-0 draw in Saitama back in June.
The home side then put in a disappointing performance against Syria, battling back with 10-men to tie the scores at 1-1 via a late Safuwan Baharudin penalty before the Eagles snared a deserved 2-1 victory in stoppage time.
Those results ended Singapore’s World Cup hopes, but understandably the goal has always been a still difficult, but more realistic, first successful Asian Cup qualifying campaign.
In a convoluted qualifying system for the 2019 event, to be held in United Arab Emirates, third place in any of the eight groups avoids another playoff round and ensures direct passage to the third round.
That is nearly secured already – Afghanistan (six points) would need to get a result against Japan and then beat Singapore in their final group game in March to have any chance of stealing third spot from the Lions.
“Our target is to qualify for the Asian Cup 2019,” Zainudin told FourFourTwo. “And I am confident that we can do so if we continue to work hard and stay united as one team.
“We are still on track for that; we have one final qualification match away against Afghanistan next year, and as things stand right now, we are on course to finish third and proceed to the next qualifying round.”
FFT quizzed Zainudin on a number of topics, including the ongoing speculation about the future of LionsXII.
There has been plenty of conjecture surrounding the Singaporean side and whether it will continue to participate in Malaysian football.
The LionsXII players forming Singapore’s new representative team for the proposed ASEAN Super League (ASL), or the side being disbanded altogether, are among the mooted possibilities.
The Football Association of Malaysia is holding an executive committee meeting next week, when LionsXII's future is expected to be on the agenda.
Zainudin says a decision on the future of the team, which has won a Malaysia Super League title and an FA Cup in its short history and is currently in the Malaysia Cup quarter-finals, is imminent.
“One of the key positives of the LionsXII’s participation in the Malaysian League and Cup competitions is the enhanced level of interest and support towards football,” he said.
“We have attracted new fans and sponsors and, at the same time, our players have also benefitted from playing in front of tens of thousands of fans on a regular basis.
“We are in the final phase of discussions with our partners and we will make an announcement at the end of the month.”
Zainudin has been one of the driving forces behind the ASL, which is understood to be targeting a soft launch in 2016 and then a full-scale competition from 2017.
Yet he was reluctant to give too much of an update on planning for the competition, only stating: “The AFF (Asian Football Federation) is in discussions with its key partners on the subject and will make an announcement at an opportune time.”
Zainudin was far more effusive, however, when asked about his greatest achievement during his tenure, having taken over the post back in 2009.
The former politician stated that a clear focus on youth has proven successful, while adding much more work is still required.
“Youth development has always been a top priority for us and hence, we invested a significant portion of our limited resources in programmes such as the Junior Centres of Excellence which caters to children as young as six years old,” he said.
“Youth development is a long-term project and I am deeply heartened by the development and progress of our youth players in recent years, including Saifullah Akbar, Benjamin Davis and Elliot Ng.
“Also, our Dollah Kassim Award winners such as Adam Swandi and Muhelmy Suhaimi have gained invaluable experience during their overseas stints and I believe more players will benefit from this in future.
“Under the next phase, (FAS technical director) Michel (Sablon) will further improve the system and he is already working on the key changes.
“The commitment and hard work of our management and staff is a key reason why FIFA and many others have singled out the high return on investment achieved by FAS despite a small operating budget, compared to the other regional associations.
“Having said that, we would require more support and resources to be able to implement our programmes fully and maximise the potential of our players.”
Zainudin was also asked about the future of the S.League, which will come to a conclusion this weekend, with Brunei DPMM and Tampines Rovers in contention for the title.
Many are hoping the beleaguered competition will be set for a revamp next year, while FFT understands it will most likely return in a similar format in 2016.
Zainudin says announcements about the future of the competition will also be forthcoming this month.
“We are constantly exploring ways to improve the S.League, which plays a key role in our football eco-system,” he said.
“We will be making an announcement on the key changes to the 2016 S.League season sometime later this month.”
Main Photo: Zee Ko/FourFourTwo