Sablon’s biggest obstacle to Singapore’s football success is… Singapore
Michel Sablon and Captain America have something in common, sort of.
At a critical juncture of their respective careers, both men had to address Singapore’s myopic obsession with financial incentives and short-term gains.
About 12 years ago, Chris Evans, in his pre-Marvel phase, found himself sitting at a roundtable with Asia-based journalists to discuss the minor disaster that was the original Fantastic Four movie.
He played the Human Torch. He has probably forgotten the role, too.
The interview was cut short when a Singaporean journalist insisted on asking how much he was paid to appear in the movie (obvious answer, not enough).
Shocked by the question, Evans completed formalities and left.
Jessica Alba, AKA The Invisible Woman, then took Evans’ place; same journalist, same question, same stunned response.
In the end, other journalists reprimanded the woman for her insensitive question. But for her, it was about the money, the obvious and only measurement of one’s progress. What other guide was there?
For her Singaporean readers, how else could success be measured?
Whether it’s arts or sports, the yardsticks are always the same. Show us the money. Show us the medals. Show us the medal targets. And show us now.
After a year in the job, the Football Association of Singapore’s technical director finds himself in the same invidious position as the exasperated Fantastic Four once did in a hotel lounge. He's got to deal with a rigid mindset.
Sablon, a talented and passionate individual, presented his findings this week, along with an intelligent blueprint for the future. The Belgian's youth development plans are practical and potentially deliverable.
But the biggest obstacle to Singapore football's progress is still Singapore.
Listening to his balanced appraisal of the state of play here, he came across as a well-meaning encyclopaedia salesman. His sales pitch was flawless and his product no less admirable. But no one’s buying it.
It’s not him. It’s us.
As NMP Dr Benedict Tan famously pointed out last year, Singapore has fostered a culture where teenagers and parents visit his sports injuries clinic not to ensure rapid recovery, but to earn an MC to get out of a sports event.
The sport versus study battle is a perennial one, frequently referenced whenever a brave leader like Sablon comes forward with another attempt to resurrect interest in the national game.
But the underlying issues go beyond kiasu parents denying their kids a chance to progress through FAS development sides once exam-itis takes hold.
Put simply, the KPI mentality cripples both creativity and risk-taking. The project by project short-termism that bedevils stat board administration inevitably filters down from the workplace to the home, breeding those cynical questions.
What are your chances of success? Can you win medals or trophies? How much money will you earn?
What's the point of youth development programmes if they don't lead to a career?
It’s a safety-first approach that runs against the grain of sporting excellence. To excel, there must be failure.
Sablon is correct to encourage coaches to instil the spirit of “failing forward”, allowing youngsters to make mistakes and learn from them. But he’s up against a society that doesn't advocate such a far-sighted philosophy.
Fail forward and lose face. Fail too often and lose a job. Failure is not an option in the clichéd workplace.
Projects are completed. KPI boxes are ticked, every time, always and without exception. Read the papers. Singapore doesn't fail, at anything, ever.
But football development just doesn’t work that way. Ask Jamie Vardy. Had the ex-non-league footballer fallen out of favour at the developmental stage in Singapore, he’d have been strongly advised to give up the puerile dream and hit the books instead. Dreams don’t fill rice bowls.
But the biggest problem with Singapore’s entrenched safety-first philosophy is, for the most part, it’s undeniable success. A risk-adverse culture has created a comfortable climate and there’s nothing comfortable about football development in the sweaty city-state.
Studying is not only the safer option, it’s also the easier option, offering an air-conditioned library, as opposed to the grimy, sticky drudgery of endless training drills in the relentless humidity.
Every one of Sablon’s initiatives are noble and positive; small-sided games, a technical emphasis at an earlier age, improved football science and medicine, smarter scouting and the excellent FAS Cubs programme to catch the kids who miss out on their school teams.
But none of them, on their own terms, can fully deal with the elephant in the room. The kind of commitment needed to even compete with the likes of Thailand, let alone Japan and the Middle Eastern powerhouses, requires a level of physical and mental sacrifice rarely witnessed in modern Singapore.
Affluence buys comfort. The trouble is it also buys inertia, an inertia that encourages youngsters to take a lift to the second floor and complain when escalators aren’t working.
Sablon wants Singapore’s Cubs to one day take on the world. First, he must convince them to take the stairs once in awhile.
If he can do that, if he can go where no football administrator has gone in the last 30 years, and persuade enough children of the air-conditioned nation to step outside and face the heat, he’ll even satisfy those short-term, materialistic types.
He’ll be worth every penny.