Neil Humphreys: Stange can't seem to get football basics right
The kampong syndrome is catching. Bernd Stange now displays all the symptoms of Singapore football’s most debilitating ailment.
The German settled into the Lions’ hot seat with the stereotypical Teutonic traits all present and correct. He spoke of revolution, of the pressing need to turn also-rans into automatons. He mentioned Barcelona. The dreams were big.
Somewhere along the bumpy journey, the dream shrank.
It was no longer about bringing a little tiki-taka to the National Stadium. It was about not finishing fourth in Group E in Asian Cup 2019 qualification. Revolution is out. Being slightly better than the war-ravaged nation of Afghanistan is the new mantra.
After Japan’s brisk stroll at the National Stadium, killing off Singapore by half-time before applying a little face-saving embalming fluid in the second half, Stange remained disturbingly upbeat. He was pleased with the Lions’ effort.
The defence played well, he said, and the midfield won their tackles and headers.
Stange was confident that his side could still finish in third place and proceed through one of the most confusing and convoluted qualification campaigns in world football.
For so many participants, qualifying for the Asian Cup 2019 is like waiting for the next birthday. It’ll come around eventually.
Still, Stange spoke positively of his revised targets for Singapore: just finish above Afghanistan in the group. Well that’s a relief. For a moment there, it looked as if the Lions might be treading water in a morass of mediocrity.
The blurry, vanishing goalposts haven’t been pushed back so far, so quickly since the myopic Mr Magoo put on the wrong glasses.
The kampong mindset has returned with a vengeance. The Thais can reach for the stars. Singapore can settle for a splash in the shrinking puddle of yesterday’s ambitions.
Japan’s superiority was already apparent on the team-sheet, but the harried, often hapless, chasing from the home side typified their manager’s caution. A nominal 4-2-3-1 soon gave way to a collective cowering around the box and a desperate hope that Izwan Mahbud could repeat his Saitama heroics.
That he did was a testament to the goalkeeper’s remarkable progress, but the inferiority complex spread from the dugout to the tentative fare on the pitch.
Home defeat is hardly an uncommon occurrence against enlightened opposition at the National Stadium, but the rudimentary errors occasionally defied belief.
Losing runners, misplacing passes, mishitting crosses, failing to find space or hitting aimless balls into empty space read like a litany of training ground deficiencies.
The Lions can’t be blamed for a smaller talent pool, but a discernible lack of fitness? They may not run as fast as the Japanese, but it’s reasonable to ask why they couldn’t run as long, in their equatorial backyard, against opponents who’ve chalked up far more air miles and competitive fixtures. Japan’s overseas-based stars flew in from all over the world. Hariss Harun came in from Johor.
Even the absence of consistent close control, the inability to trap a ball without it springing away as if attached to a slinky toy, was an exasperating feature of a colourless performance.
These are not genetic flaws or physiological failings, but simple kinks to be ironed out on the training ground. These are fixable problems.
So Stange’s habit of bounding into press conferences to praise his opponents’ class, whilst downgrading his ambitions for Singapore begins to grate after repeated hearings.
There are interesting similarities to be drawn here with the much-maligned Pim Verbeek. When the Dutch coach took over as coach of the Socceroos in 2007, just a year after their World Cup exploits, he endeared himself to no one by calling certain local players “hopeless” and castigating the A-League’s poor standard.
Verbeek expended far too much energy fussing over what the Socceroos didn’t have, rather than focusing on the talent at his disposal. Instead he emphasized the gulf in quality between his squad and those he had worked with in Europe, as if absolving him of responsibility.
But what began as a call to arms, a foreign jolt to localised senses to rise out of the Australasian ghetto and strive for the global stage, quickly gave way to a broken record of excuses for a lack of progress.
In the end, the Aussie public retort was as obvious as it was inevitable, essentially saying, ‘you’re not here to tell us what we haven’t got. We already know what we haven’t got. You’re here to find it for us.’
Does any of this sound familiar?
Stange, like Verbeek, knew he wasn’t about to harvest the latest crop from La Masia when he signed on the bottom line. His boys hail from Bishan not Barcelona and his expectations had to be realigned accordingly, but the pendulum didn’t need to swing from one extreme to the other with such ferocity.
The Suzuki Cup exit, going out at the group stage on home soil, was a new low, but accepting dull wins against Cambodia and Afghanistan and praising one-sided defeats against Japan sets the bar even lower.
Even victory against Syria on Tuesday, at home, now appears less important than the noble quest to … not finish below Afghanistan.
With “success” of that magnitude on the horizon line, who needs to be a failure?