Singapore football needs to hear hard truths

New youth teams head coach Richard Tardy deserves credit for delivering a wake-up call. Forget face-saving, it’s about facing our failures without fear of censure, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Singapore football really is upside down.

When the National Youth Teams head coach Richard Tardy rejected mealy-mouthed platitudes in favour of some stinging criticisms of the Lion City Cup performances, my immediate reaction was no different to the private messages I received from people within the industry.

He’ll pay for that.

As a foreigner, he doesn’t understand the wider political machinations at play. He hasn’t sensed the subtle, but omnipresent undertow. He’s a wide-eyed visitor not familiar with the face-saving culture.

He’ll pay for that. But what would he be paying for exactly?

The 65-year-old Frenchman essentially hijacked the press conference following the conclusion of the Lion City Cup, which involved Singapore’s under-15s and under 16s and Liverpool and Tottenham’s under-15s.

He was not deferential. He was not on message. He did not go gentle into that good night because it wasn’t a particularly good night. The Lion City Cup was once again a commendable youth tournament with honorable intentions let down by poor support and a nation’s inherent football failings.

Jaws dropped and pens scribbled as Tardy rejected political correctness in favour of a damning report card, stepping on more toes than a tap-dancing octopus. He focused on three crucial areas: physical fitness, technical ability and mental commitment.

Tardy pulled no punches during his impromptu press appearance. Photo: Weixiang Lim

In the inevitable hullabaloo over a new coach essentially reading the riot act within minutes of a tournament’s conclusion, Tardy’s obvious insight got lost in the raging haze. The finger of blame was pointed inwards.

Physical fitness, mental commitment and technical ability are developmental areas within Singapore’s control. These things can be fixed in coaching 101 classes, with appropriate resources. They are achievable, obvious prerequisites to sporting success that should go without saying.

And they frequently do go without saying. They are often swept under a shag pile carpet, leaving Singapore to wrap itself in that warm security blanket of denial, a patchwork quilt of clichés.

You already know them all … Singapore is too small … The nascent sports culture remains undeveloped ... The talent pool is insufficient … There are not enough open spaces and so on.

When those Brazilian boys from the Rio favelas have stopped giggling - the slum kids who’ll end up swapping their chipped concrete patches for Champions League lawns – Singapore should wriggle heads free from the sand and perhaps listen to Tardy.

We don’t run fast enough for long enough. Our mental fitness flags. We cannot trap balls or execute passes or shoot consistently well. That’s it. Never mind the intricacies of the most artistic practitioners or the endless permutations of evolving tactics. Other countries are fitter, stronger, smarter and sharper.

The current rankings, all of them, at every level of the game, both globally and across Asia, do not lie.

It’s easy to focus on what a tiny city-state with finite resources doesn’t have because the geographical shortcomings offer a chance to ignore Singapore’s struggle to get the basics right. Whenever the software stalls, blame it on the hardware.

Clearly, Tardy doesn’t see it that way. A lack of talent is forgivable. Inadequate preparation isn’t. Passing and shooting, form and fitness and attitude and application are not insurmountable obstacles. They are fixed on a pitch, at the earliest opportunity.

Singapore U15 man-of-the-match Gerard Hong is flanked by teammates Saifullah Akbar and Ikhsan Fandi. Photo: WX Lim

Tardy will work with Football Association of Singapore director Michel Sablon on implementing the grassroots manual designed for children aged six to nine years old – the grassroots ages – and also players between 10-13, which Sablon calls the golden age. That’s the time to iron out the kinks and address the systemic problems that Tardy highlighted in his unvarnished appraisal of the Lion City Cup’s youth teams.

His hard truths are no less important than Sablon’s glossy, 187-page grassroots manual. One cannot grow without the other and Tardy must be allowed to state the obvious without fear of public or private censure.

Singapore’s stubbornly entrenched KPI culture makes it hard to stick one’s backside above the parapet for fear of being shot down. A spade is never a spade if it can somehow be redefined and retooled to obfuscate people long enough to believe short-term targets are being met (or at least restructured).

But Tardy’s trained eye is not so easily distracted. He says what he sees. After helping Rwanda to qualify for the U-17 Youth World Cup in 2011 and assisting Gerard Houllier in guiding the French national U-20 team to victory at the 1996 European U-20 Championships, he has earned the right to speak freely.

And he’s right. Singapore labours to put football’s fundamentals in place. Dealing with that inconvenient truth is a start. Denying it is tantamount to complicity.

Besides, Tardy is an experienced, respected youth coach, very much aware that Singapore hosts qualification for the AFC under-16 championships at the end of the month. He’s not Mary Poppins. A spoonful of sugar hasn’t helped the mediocrity go down any easier in recent years.

Grassroots football needs to swallow its medicine if the sick patient is to have any chance of recovery.