Forget Thailand, Singapore could learn from Myanmar first
Michel Sablon was saying the right things to reporters earlier this week.
"We would like to develop for the next generation for Singapore a way of play in the next five to six years," the technical director of the Football Association of Singapore said in reference to implementing a 4-3-3 formation at various levels. "We are not at that stage now … but we are aiming at the level of being able to apply the system."
The Belgian also wants more kids playing football at school. “The children should have fun and in the meantime they will learn. We have to focus on the quality, we need qualified coaches," Sablon added.
"If we can have good geography or mathematics coaches, why not football too?"
Being from Belgium, the country that has developed a number of world-class players in recent years, Sablon commands instant respect.
An official from Myanmar would not have been listened to quite so much – this is the way of football – but perhaps one should have been invited. On the way back he could have paid a visit to Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia and Singapore have been regional powers for decades and they still like to talk about the glory days of decades past. These neighbours have the history, infrastructure and years and years of investment.
Yet, with every new coaching change in the national team, it seems like they are almost starting again.
Perhaps it is the weight of history and expectations that is a problem. Myanmar is free from such burdens. This is a country that didn't play a first World Cup qualifier until 2007 or have a professional league game until 2009 but is quietly doing what Sablon is talking about, or at least a version of it.
The country has a fraction of the resources available to Singapore but has been finding ways to improve and more importantly, find its own style in football.
In a few months, the 0-0 draw between Myanmar and Malaysia in Yangon that took place last Saturday evening will be forgotten. It was a warm-up for both teams, though for different reasons.
For Malaysia, it is an early test for coach Ong Kim Swee.
For Myanmar, it is about co-hosting the AFF Suzuki Cup in November and making the country a regional force.
But there were two things that stood out about the game. One was that the visitors were the better team.
Going forward, Myanmar were smooth and there was real cohesion in contrast to the Tigers. The attacking movement and passing was impressive though the lack of a natural striker is a current problem.
What definitely stuck out was the second point that the starting 11 had an average age of just over 23. The oldest player on the home side was 26.
Coach Gerd Zeise took control of the Under-19 and Under-20 teams in the past and got the big job in November. It is not a surprise then that there is an emphasis on youth.
It can be argued that a little more experience is needed but Myanmar have a long-term vision that sees the AFF Suzuki Cup as just the beginning.
It sees a semi-final position on home soil as a platform to build on. There is even talk of trying to co-host a future Asian Cup in the not-too-distant future.
Zeise, not glamorous or media friendly but hard-working, also took Myanmar to the Under-20 World Cup and a number of players have already made the transition to the senior team. More are expected to follow. The appearance in New Zealand was no accident and gave encouragement that progress was being made.
U Zaw Zaw, the head of the football association, has made an effort to increase the number of children playing the game and facilities have improved in various parts of the country.
Back in 2010, the Ministry of Education started training teachers in school to be football coaches.
There was investment made by both private and public sectors into the youth side of the game and FIFA grants were used widely and wisely.
The quality of the local players has been slowly improving. With the youth teams Zeise enjoyed a number of European training camps.
Malaysia have done similar things in the past with trips to Slovakia, for example, but these were not built upon and the country's FA even hired a new U-23 team coach in December 2015 before it had decided on the identity of the boss of the senior side – not something conducive to building a consistent style of play.
The same can said of Singapore, with trips to Turkey in the past.
All the while the Myanmar National League has improved in its seven years to become a genuinely nationwide competition of 12 privately-owned teams as opposed to the Yangon-centric competitions of the past.
Standards still vary as do attendances but the best teams are getting better helped by investment from tycoons such as U Tay Za at Yangon United.
In the 2016 AFC Cup – the federation worked hard to gain entry into that competition in 2012 – neither Yangon nor Ayeyawady United were far off the last 16 but four of the previous eight participants reached the knockout stage.
Myanmar have come a long way in a short space of time and while they are not going to be overtaking their more prestigious regional rivals soon, they have found their feet and are making strides.
Malaysia and Singapore, constantly talking of new starts, need to find their own paths too.
Main photo: Weixiang Lim / FFT