AFF Suzuki Cup performance: We're fed up with excuses, says Leonard Thomas
I'm glad Bernd Stange had a sleepless night on Saturday.
The Singapore football coach said he felt empty, after the Lions fell 3-1 to archrivals Malaysia at the National Stadium and were dumped out of the Suzuki Cup.
He clearly cares.
Around 24 hours after the harrowing defeat, the 66-year-old met The New Paper last night, and his impassioned words, and defence of his players, was admirable.
The buck stops with him and, refreshingly, he says he knows it.
What has been exasperatingly familiar are the reasons and excuses that have been trotted out on various platforms by local voices after Singapore's failure to defend our Asean crown.
It seems as if every time the national team fails, we fall back on the same excuses.
This is unacceptable.
For years now, proper youth development has been identified as a critical problem area, yet, even today, international players like Faris Ramli and Fazrul Nawaz struggle to trap a football or whip in crosses.
German Stange has complained about the lack of proper facilities around the country, S.League clubs moan about the lack of sponsorship money, the disruption to training for talented teenagers in National Service is a tricky juggling act for the likes of LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad, but none of these hurdles explains why our players constantly struggle with physical fitness.
I would think the ability to be comfortable on the ball and make a simple pass, and the need to be able to last the rigours of a competitive and intense season, or tournament, are basic requirements of a professional footballer.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japan Football Association in 2011, but none of our youngsters or coaches has been sent on attachment there for further development in any meaningful way.
The FAS made much of Stange's international pedigree and experience when he was unveiled in mid-2013, but the German has yet to arrange for talented youngsters to be attached to football programmes abroad.
I was thrilled to see how Hariss Harun has blossomed and the way he commanded the midfield in each of the Lions' three games in the Suzuki Cup was truly impressive.
But it also made me wonder how much better the 24-year-old would have become if he had taken the chance and signed for top-flight Portuguese club Rio Ave last year.
Safuwan Baharudin is one of the most talented central defenders in the region, but he is already 23 and the FAS must not make the same mistake with him.
Or with 22-year-old Sahil Suhaimi, who I believe is the most talented out-and-out striker the country has seen in a long time.
In sport, there are always winners and losers.
Obviously, the Lions will lose games, especially with a smaller talent pool and resources here compared to other football-mad nations.
We have no divine right to win at our own National Stadium, but surely it's time to get our basics right.
I know FAS vice-president Bernard Tan is working to launch a programme with primary schools to grow the base of youngsters playing the game.
That's a good place to start the goal of getting the basics right.
Enough with the same old excuses.
Share your views with Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org
FAS STANDS BY STANGE
Defending champions Singapore were dumped out in the group stages of the AFF Suzuki Cup, with the Lions failing to meet the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) target of qualifying for the semi-finals, but FAS president Zainudin Nordin's confidence in under-fire national coach Bernd Stange will not be swayed.
"This (criticism of coaches) happens all the time. Raddy Avramovic won the Cup in 2004 and 2007, but in 2008 and 2010, things were bad. But (sacking the coach) in a knee-jerk reaction has not been our style. We're a responsible organisation that looks at reports and analyses," Mr Zainudin told The New Paper.
"We will look at the reports and if we do find grounds, we will make a decision from there."
Stange took the reins in May last year and has looked to implement a new philosophy of football: a high intensity, passing-and-pressing game.
And Mr Zainudin believes such changes take time.
"These things don't happen overnight and we must stay the course and it's a question of how we persevere and do things correctly," he said.
"People may argue if this style is suitable for Singapore, but that is a philosophical discussion. We should believe in our vision and follow it through."
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Even in his disappointment, Mr Zainudin, who is a Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, believes there are things that went well during the campaign.
He found joy in the hunger shown by the team and the performances of players the likes of Hariss Harun, Faris Ramli and Shakir Hamzah.
But factors like fan engagement could be improved on, as well as managing player-performance in front of large crowds.
"My suspicion is that some of our players were overwhelmed by the 48,000 crowd (in the 3-1 loss to Malaysia), and in that sense, having the LionsXII play in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) is not too bad a choice for us, so our players can get a taste of playing in a hostile crowd," he said.
"I'm not saying that the MSL is better than our S.League, but you can't find that kind of exposure here."
And Mr Zainudin has called for patience as Stange goes about his business.
"In hindsight, if you look at our three games blow by blow, a lot of issues come up, like selection, tactics and style," said Mr Zainudin.
"But I don't interfere in these things, that's not my job. I may not agree with Bernd all the time, but he's the coach and he needs to be allowed to do his job."