Call for Young Lions to be scrapped
A club chairman raised the suggestion, but technical director Sablon warns of consequences
As S.League clubs brace themselves for a cut in funding from next season, another significant development could also take place: the disbandment of the Garena Young Lions.
The New Paper understands that, in a meeting last Friday with the top brass from (FAS) Football Association of Singapore to chart the S.League's future, a club chairman called for the dissolution of the Young Lions - the Under-21 team in the professional S.League.
The players, who usually make up the core of the national U-21 team, would be better off fighting for a place at S.League clubs, he argued.
FAS president Lim Kia Tong revealed that the dearth of players coming through S.League teams - including the Young Lions - was discussed in Friday's meeting.
"There has been a constant statement that the league has not been a good platform to produce better national players," he told TNP.
"That's accounted for, perhaps, the performance of the national team."
Singapore are currently ranked world No. 171, their lowest ever.
The Young Lions project was set up with the objective of giving youngsters regular game time ahead of the 2003 SEA Games, which became an age-group tournament from 2001.
The project's ultimate aim was to help Singapore achieve the dream of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
However, in eight editions of the SEA Games since the Young Lions were set up, Singapore have been knocked out of the group stage five times, winning only the bronze medal on the three other occasions. (See list at right).
Their performances in the S.League have also declined in recent years - this year's team could even end up as the first S.League side in history to go an entire season without a win.
They are rooted at the bottom of the nine-team table, with only three points after 24 games. There are 10 games left.
The sub-par performances give ammunition to critics, who say the team's results do not justify their existence and perks, such as having first dibs on young talent from S.League clubs.
But FAS technical director Michel Sablon warned that the local football administrators would be making a dire mistake by scrapping the Young Lions.
"It would be a very, very bad decision for Singapore football," said the Belgian, who joined FAS in 2015 and signed a two-year extension in March.
"If we send the players to the clubs and then they don't play, we would lose a whole generation of players.
"The Young Lions have given them an opportunity to play at a level which is a little too bit high for them, yes, but it is good for them to learn."
When asked about Singapore's lack of success at the biennial SEA Games, which includes last month's group-stage exit in Kuala Lumpur, Sablon retorted that there was "no development plan" for the squad before 2015, when he arrived.
The 69-year-old, who is credited for developing Belgium's football blueprint that developed players such as Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, added that he was sure of an improved performance at the 2019 SEA Games.
Members of the local football fraternity TNP spoke to backed the suggestion to disband the Young Lions, but with caveats.
Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic said the FAS should add a seventh local club to the S.League if it plans to break up the Young Lions squad.
Gombak United chairman John Yap has said his club, which has sat out the S.League since 2013, are ready to return if given the green light by the FAS.
"I do think it is better for those young players to play at clubs," said Kraljevic, who has played and coached in Singapore since 1996.
"At clubs, they will have foreign players, and some older players whom they will learn from every day.
"They may not be in the starting X1 every game, but it is good for them to have to fight to play.
"At the Young Lions, they know they will play for sure, so they are in their comfort zone.And if you are in your comfort zone, you will never improve."
Another club official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Just look at Shahrin (Saberin, Young Lions defender). Last season at Home United, he was playing regularly, he knows how to win. He joins the Young Lions this year and only loses.
"Does he learn more at Home United, competing alongside seniors, or at the Young Lions, only losing alongside his age-group?
"We've seen so many young players perform well at clubs, then get picked by the Young Lions, only to regress."
Hougang United coach Philippe Aw, who has given teenagers Lionel Tan and Justin Hui a taste of S.League action this season, had mixed feelings.
He said if the Young Lions were to disband, rules must be put in place to ensure clubs field Under-21 players as coaches would naturally prefer an experienced player.
Aw occasionally pays the price for his decision to play youngsters, but he is sticking to his guns.
He said: "If I don't give this boy a chance, what will happen? He filters out of the system, just like many previous young players with potential that don't get the chance to play and develop."
HIGHS AND LOWS OF YOUNG LIONS PROJECT
● Coached by P N Sivaji, the Young Lions finish bottom of the S.League in their debut season.
● The Singapore U-23 team, coached by Sivaji, get knocked out of the SEA Games at the group stage.
● Under Danish coach Kim Poulsen, the Young Lions finish third in the S.League - their highest finish ever.
● The Singapore U-23 team, coached by Raddy Avramovic, get knocked out of the SEA Games at the group stage.
● Under Fandi Ahmad, Young Lions finish third in the S.League again.
● They also reach the Malaysian FA Cup quarter-finals.
● The S'pore U-23 team, coached by Avramovic, win bronze at the SEA Games.
● Under V Sundramoorthy, the Young Lions reach the semi-finals of Singapore Cup and League Cup.
● The Singapore U-23 team, coached by Terry Pathmanathan, retain their bronze at the SEA Games.
● The S'pore Under-23 team, coached by Slobodan Pavkovic, get knocked out of the SEA Games at the group stage.
● Under Aide Iskandar, the Young Lions finish bottom of the S.League.
● However, Aide leads the S'pore U-23 team to a SEA Games bronze medal.
● Under Aide, the S'pore U-23 team get knocked out of the SEA Games on home soil at the group stage.
● Under Patrick Hesse, the Young Lions finish bottom of the S.League.
● The Singapore U-23 team, coached by Richard Tardy, get knocked out at the group stage of the SEA Games.
● With 10 games left, the Young Lions are bottom of the S.League.