Applause and appreciation for the fans
Football, Singapore sports' prodigal son, needs to take a long hard look at itself, says sports minister Wong
Five years ago, Kadir Yahaya's Under-15 football squad at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) proved that even kids could coax people out their homes and into stadiums.
A couple of years later Adam Swandi and Co. outgunned some of the best youth football academies in the world en route to third and second place in consecutive Lion City Cup tourneys in 2011 and 2012.
But, even with a nation behind them, and a squad supposedly peppered with some of the best talent - including Adam - Aide Iskandar's SEA Games squad fell flat, failing even to set foot in the National Stadium for the semi-finals.
Singapore was represented in 36 sports at the Games, and football was one of three - along with petanque and tennis - to fail to return with a medal.
It clearly needs to take a hard look at itself, says sports minister Lawrence Wong.
"My sense of it is that football needs a deep hard look at (its) broader ecosystem... (and) what are the objectives it is looking to achieve," said Mr Wong, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at a post-Games press conference yesterday.
Wong hit on a salient point.
From last year's AFF Suzuki Cup to the LionsXII campaign in Malaysia to the Courts Young Lions in the S.League, where the bulk of the Games squad honed their skills, it appeared that some players were fighting on multiple fronts up until a week before the Games kicked off.
Fatigue affected senior players like Faris Ramli and Sahil Suhaimi, and it was a symptom of a lack of clearly marked objectives.
Reports of internal discord within the team merely two weeks before the tournament also smacked of poor direction setting and management.
Football spent $3.5 million over an 18-month preparation period for the Games, 27 times more than the 20 days Indonesia had to ready themselves.
Indonesia pipped Singapore to the semi-final spot in Group A.
But football remains the prodigal son of Singapore sport.
"It remains the sport that can fill the National Stadium. It remains the sport that has the highest number of players, not just playing the sport, but also in the private sector in the sport - there is huge interest," said Sport Singapore (SportSG) chief executive Lim Teck Yin, pointing to large number of private football academies running programmes for kids here.
"And we are short of (football) fields, even though we have more than a 100. The desire for football is extremely strong - and in my view, the ecosystem needs to be strengthened," he added, arriving at the same conclusion as Wong.
SportSG's football taskforce is aimed at getting to the root of the problem of the sport in Singapore, and coming up with recommendations to help take it up to the next level.
And while the taskforce has not seen much activity over the last few SEA Games-focused months, it will kick into gear and come up with a plan.
"They have preliminary ideas, but they have not put out their final recommendations, yet," said Wong.
Lim envisions a long hard road ahead.
"Very clearly, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to clarify the direct outcomes that we're hoping to see from every major initiative from football," he said. "And how those outcomes accumulate in the larger positioning of football and quality of football we see in Singapore."
"It remains the sport that can fill the National Stadium. It remains the sport that has the highest number of players, not just playing the sport, but also in the private sector in the sport — there is huge interest."
- Sport Singapore chief executive Lim Teck Yin on the draw of football
FAS must answer for the mess
Chanathip Songkrasin. TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Two years ago, the optimism was palpable as Singapore football looked forward to the SEA Games.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) assured the country that a comprehensive battle-plan would be drawn up and the national Under-23s would go for gold on home soil.
Out of it all was the dream of historic achievement, a first football gold at the Games, witnessed by more than 50,000 Singaporeans of every race and creed, young and old, man and woman, at the grand new National Stadium, with the rest of the nation excitedly hugging and jumping and exchanging screams and high-fives with each other in coffee shops, bars and at home, watching on TV.
After two years and $3.5 million of support from Singsoc and the Singapore Sports Institute, it all ended in tears for the Under-23s, and the FAS must be answerable for this mess of a mission.
Aide Iskandar's men failed to produce even one stirring display in their four opening-round matches and did not belong in the semi-finals.
There was little quality in these Young Lions, there was hardly evidence of it in the long build-up to the Games and, surely, alarm bells should have sounded much earlier within the FAS.
The target of a final battle for gold was never on, and that is a damning indictment.
The country needs an explanation of what went wrong, because out of the ashes of this failed venture are valuable lessons and the same mistakes must never happen again.
It is always the coach who conducts a review post-tournament but Aide quit minutes after the Indonesia debacle.
I hope someone in the FAS has already started a comprehensive review of the botched venture and ensure it is made public soonest.
Tell a football-mad nation how this went so badly wrong, because the cock-up beggars belief.
Not that the Singapore football team had a divine right to win gold as hosts.
But the youngsters needed to at least play football the right way. They needed to show off eager movement and the ability to employ the quick-passing style that national teams coach Bernd Stange vowed would be a feature of all our sides from the various age group teams right up to the Lions.
Instead, the Under-23s, apparently stocked with our most talented youngsters, were scared on the ball, fluffed their passing, showed little imagination, and mostly punted long.
It is alarming, when so many of them are the future of the national team.
If Aide was just not good enough, yet, then a tough decision should have been made long ago and a head coach installed to help the former international captain, who at 40, is still young in his trade.
Clearly, Kadir Yahaya's entry came a little too late.
FAS president Zainudin Nordin has already admitted the FAS could have handled the Faris Ramli and Sahil Suhaimi issue better. The two were with the LionsXII for much of the year and only joined the Young Lions in earnest a week before kick-off.
To see Irfan Fandi and Sahil operate like strangers up front, and learn of Faris' fatigue and injury, were painful and almost predictable.
The likes of Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar continue to improve, playing a quick-passing game and showing a dexterity of movement and the kind of guile that make the heart beat faster in excitement.
Time is critical as we try and catch up and I wait for the FAS to reveal why their Games' blueprint flopped.
The silence is deafening and I also wait for Zainudin and his team to unveil a new masterplan, which they have said will happen soon.
I can't wait for new Belgian technical director, Michel Sablon, to deliver his blueprint for a youth development programme.
Right now, the likes of Thailand are far ahead of us.
Players like Hariss Harun, Izwan Mahbud and Safuwan Baharudin were Singapore's last youngsters with stardust and they were from the time of former Singapore coach, Radojko Avramovic.
Under-23s Faris, Sahil, Shafiq Ghani and Adam Swandi are hardly in their class.
Let alone Chanathip Songkrasin and some of his teammates who thrilled us all en route to SEA Games gold.