S'pore U22s may not be in top shape for AFC Championship qualifiers
Singapore stand a great chance of creating history and qualifying for their first AFC Under-23 Championship next year.
While Asian powerhouses China are in their group, the national Under-22s stand a good chance of progressing, because the luck of the draw saw the team also line up alongside regional minnows Laos and Mongolia.
Group winners and the five best second-placed sides from the 10 groups advance to the Finals in Qatar next January.
Singapore's Group J qualifiers kick off in Vientiane on March 27.
Beat hosts Laos and Mongolia and Richard Bok's boys could very well earn their ticket to Qatar, although preparations for the task have raised eyebrows.
The squad have not gathered since their last training session on March 9 and they will come together on Friday.
Responding to queries from The New Paper yesterday, the FAS did not address why the team would have only a week to train together - this includes a friendly against the senior Cambodia team on Sunday, flying to Laos next Wednesday before the crucial opening match against the hosts two days later - but it did highlight that preparations began last year.
An FAS spokesman said: "Richard was appointed to lead this team in the Prime League last year and since his appointment, he has led the team to overseas invitational competitions in Brunei, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
"He also led the team in friendly matches against Syria and Cambodia more recently. For our final preparations, we brought players from the U-23 squad who are eligible for the qualifiers to join the U-22s.
"Therefore, we wish to reiterate that the team's preparations for this important regional assignment was a long-term project that began a year ago."
The lack of training recently, though, is curious, especially when one considers the Courts Young Lions, from which most of the U-22s come from, have been inactive since their last S.League match on March 5.
Former National Football Academy coach Abdullah Noor, the only one to have guided a team to qualify for a continental competition when his boys made it to the 2008 AFC U-16 Championship, insisted that having a period of intense centralised training is crucial.
He said: "For big assignments, it is always good to have the players in early.
"Back then I had my players for an overseas training stint for two weeks before coming back and then leaving for the qualifiers in China. I had the benefit of having them with me and playing a lot of games for about a year."
Bok did not have that luxury as his U-22 team were cobbled together only at the start of this year, and the players from the Courts Young Lions were initially absent as they were in the midst of pre-season, preparing for their SEA Games gold-medal charge in June.
There had been intense speculation that Bok was actually relieved of his duties earlier this month, but the FAS said: "It is not FAS's practice to comment on speculation.
"As per standard operating procedures, coaches within the national set-up have regular meetings with national teams head coach Bernd Stange where a recent review of roles and responsibilities was conducted for all coaches.
"However, Richard Bok will continue to lead the Under-22 National Team as was decided when he was first appointed into the role."
Former international defender R Sasikumar said: "It would be a huge shot in the arm to qualify and mix it with the big boys.
"It would only make sense to the layman, the media and other observers for the FAS to give it everything they've got.
"But there could be underlying circumstances we are not privy to. It would be good if the FAS can clarify their stand instead of keeping people guessing.
"I do understand that the SEA Games is just as important because it is held at home, and you can imagine the impact it will have if we do win our first football gold.
"That said, the AFC U-23 qualifiers must also be considered a great opportunity to showcase Singapore football at a higher level in Asia."
With Bok at the helm, the national U-22s' recent results include losses to the Cambodia national team (0-3), Syria under-23s (1-6), Malaysia Under-22s (0-1), Thailand Under-22s (2-3) and an encouraging 0-0 draw against the Bahrain Under-22s.
Yesterday, he would only say: "I wish to end any speculation regarding my future by stating that I am looking forward to continuing coaching the U-22s and leading the team for the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers.
"I also wish to take this opportunity to state that I am happy to continue working closely with my coaching colleagues to balance the needs of our respective teams. At the moment, we are fully focused on this important assignment ahead of us."