Foreign or local coach, that’s not the problem

It’s easy to attack outgoing Lions boss, but much harder to admit that Singapore’s ‘limitations’ make it tough for any coach, argues NEIL HUMPHREYS

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With national Bernd Stange leaving next month, the search begins for the next idealistic deckchair handler on the Titanic.

Vested interests must pretend otherwise of course. As water seeps into the third class cabins of the listing vessel, authority figures with loud hailers will insist that help is on the way as prospective candidates turn up with plastic buckets.

Will it be Fandi Ahmad or V. Sundramoorthy? Will it be another foreigner casting aspersions on the state of local coaching? Will it be Fandi plus foreigner, Sundram plus foreigner or foreigner plus foreigner?

The tension is strangely bearable as a jaded nation struggles to contain its indifference as the media speculation builds to a damp squib.

In the coming weeks, the manufactured national coach debate concerning Fandi, Sundram and another list of unheralded Johnny foreigners will read like a Marxist conspiracy to titillate and distract the masses. While the chattering classes argue amongst themselves about former Malaysia Cup heroes and unknown immigrants coming in and taking local coaching jobs, those in control can get on with the business of managing (or mismanaging) their power.

Does Singapore's football problems end with Fandi? No..

All media distractions are welcome. Anything to draw attention from the blindingly obvious observation that a new shiny nameplate on the door of the national coach’s office will not turn the Lions into World Cup contenders.

Like the Titanic’s deckchair handler, he might rearrange them into fancier patterns for passersby to briefly admire. But no one’s removing a life jacket any time soon.

Stange’s record has been patchy at best, with 14 wins, four draws and 15 losses from 33 matches. Highlights included the historic 0-0 draw in Saitama. Low points seemed to include most of the staid, laboured 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers played at the worryingly quiet National Stadium.

But a recent admission from Stange was telling. The German coach acknowledged a two-year stint mostly mired in mediocrity, but also expressed his surprise at the “limitations” and “challenges” that are beyond the control of the Football Association of Singapore.

Ah, the sensitive stuff.

When it comes to the obstacles facing the national game, there is not just one elephant in the room. Indeed, Hannibal crossed the Alps with fewer elephants.

A couple of weeks before the Stange reports surfaced, another football-related story went viral across social media platforms. It’s hard not to picture Stange reading the story whilst checking flight times to Germany.

In its finite wisdom, the Queenstown Housing Board installed a set of barriers across a void deck beneath one of its blocks. The unsightly fences were put up to stop kids playing football. The sport-loving oiks were advised to collect their balls and use the “proper amenties” near by. (Which ones?)

Similar barriers had been used in Ang Mo Kio, Choa Chu Kang and Pasir Ris-Punggol. An Ang Mo Kio Town Council spokesman, who clearly has a flair for the theatrical, stressed that the barriers protected footballs from hitting pregnant women.

After all, who can’t open a newspaper these days without coming across another horrific story about a pregnant woman being hospitalised after being felled by a football? It’s easy to make light of the incident because the incident has never happened.

To thoroughly underscore the uncomfortable truth, perhaps Changi Airport could consider a new banner at the arrivals hall. Welcome to Singapore. No ball games allowed.

Despite the best intentions of many committed enthusiasts, Singapore is not a particularly football-friendly island. Those “proper amenities” referred to earlier do exist. Housing estates do include the odd multi-purpose futsal pitch, which can cater up to a dozen people at any one time for a community of thousands.

The rest pay up.

Fabulous websites such as regularly update the futsal courts and school and college pitches available for hire, but few, if any, are free.

Football is the world game because the game is an exceedingly simple one, requiring only an improvised goal, a spherical object and a bit of space. From the Rio favelas to Soweto shanty towns, just about everyone has access to those bare essentials.

Pitches in the Lion City are hard to come by and expensive to rent.

But Singapore doesn’t. Open spaces are mostly fenced off for future residential or commercial developments and void decks are barricaded to save the lives of pregnant women. Football pitches are available for anything from $50 to $100 per session. In a land-scarce country with a nascent sports culture, football is anything but free. Kicking a ball with kakis comes at a cost.

Perennial problems such as a lack of qualified coaches (often denied suitable facilities to begin with), an unforgiving education system that struggles to accommodate sporty teenagers, a reluctance among the Chinese community to allow children to pursue a football career and the omnipresent shadow of National Service present more obstacles than an HDB void deck.

Working within such constraints, how could any national coach make real progress?

That’s not to say Stange’s time in charge hasn’t been chequered. Basic fitness and even competent trapping and passing techniques were conspicious by their absence in Singapore’s World Cup qualification campaign.

Raddy Avramovic didn’t make lofty promises, but he smartly understood Singapore’s longstanding limitations. So he established a core group of players, a healthy mix of experienced warhorses and committed rising stars and drilled them endlessly, making them an undeniably fit and organised outfit that won three Asean championships.

But Avaramovic couldn’t overcome Singapore’s deeply entrenched societal “limitations”. No coach can.

Improvements are being made and the new ActiveSG Football Academy, which offers cheaper programmes for children, is a small step in the right direction.

But can the academy, or a new national coach for that matter, satisfactorily overcome the lack of playing spaces, the shortage of coaches, the loss of promising talents at the end of secondary school and the underlying apathy from the majority race towards the local game?

Of course not.

The national coach can only provide the window dressing, which will always be a futile exercise when the house isn’t in order.

Photo: Weixiang Lim / FFT