I'll field only the best: Stange
Lions coach Stange says he will no longer offer caps to test players, only the best will play
He may leave his post once his contract expires after April 15, but national football coach Bernd Stange is adamant about the three main targets the Lions should aim to achieve this year.
In an exclusive interview with The New Paper, the 68-year-old German refused to take progress to the third qualifying round of the Asian Cup for granted, despite Afghanistan facing the tall order of having to beat Japan and Singapore in their remaining Group E matches to advance at the Lions' expense.
In preparation, the Lions will take on Myanmar, who are six spots below world No. 148 Singapore, on Thursday at Jalan Besar before leaving for Iran to take on Afghanistan in Teheran five days later.
"You may say (qualifying for) the third round is already a done deal, but you never know in football," said Stange.
"We have to go out there and confirm third place in our group. It is not outstanding, but other neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines would be happy to be in our position."
The other big assignment this year will be the Suzuki Cup, co-hosted by Myanmar and the Philippines from Nov 19 to Dec 17.
The Lions will want to set the record straight after being embarrassed on home soil two years ago when the then-defending champions crashed out during the group stage.
Stange said: "Of course, we prepare our team this year for the Suzuki Cup to try to win the tournament."
To do so, they have made plans for a centralised training tour in Austria in July, during which they will play against some European teams.
Clarifying that the European stint was not an indication of whether or not he was staying on as Singapore coach, Stange said: "As a national coach, you have to deliver your plans in advance. You cannot say because your contract finishes in April, please make your own plans.
"Because I'm now still responsible for the success of the national team, I will use all my power and give the FAS my plans for the next two years, exactly what we need this year and next year for Asian Cup qualification."
While Stange acknowledged that June's friendlies in Austria will not earn Singapore Fifa ranking points, he explained that there are no Fifa dates in July to play "A" internationals.
However, plans are afoot to meet the third main target for Stange - his vision of playing 10 "A" internationals this year in an attempt to climb the world rankings.
In the last three years, Singapore have played 33 matches, including World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers and Suzuki Cup ties.
When he was appointed in May 2013, Stange spoke of his friendship with world-renowned coaches such as Fabio Capello and stoked intrigue and anticipation about the possibility of Singapore facing top international opposition on a more regular basis.
However, the highest-ranked nations the Lions have faced in international friendlies during his tenure were China and Qatar, hardly teams to set pulses racing.
Stange said: "In the second half of the year, all the top teams from Asia are involved in the next round of World Cup qualification. This means teams like Australia, China, Iran, Iraq, South Korea and Japan are mostly unavailable.
"Top European countries are definitely not coming to Singapore from September till December because there is a crowded schedule with their players involved in the top (European) leagues, Champions League and Europa League. And they also have World Cup qualifiers."
A possible solution would be to source for top Asian teams that have been unexpectedly knocked out of the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers.
Stange agreed and revealed that international media rights company MP & Silva, whom the Football Association of Singapore has a strategic partnership with, is working on arranging better quality opposition this year, such as an Under-21 friendly against Iran, TNP understands.
He added: "We are working together with MP & Silva to be the first to get top teams that are out of the qualifiers, to bring them to Singapore or play away games.
"We have verbal agreements with a few countries, it means everything is open and we are very happy to have MP & Silva, who are very committed to this, to help us."
Stange also asserted that his days of "testing players" are over. In the last three years, he used to experiment with different players in different roles, but he will now pick the best possible side.
"There are no more presents," he said. "I will choose the best players who have the best attitude, the best fitness and desire to make it to the 2019 Asian Cup.
"I believe our players need pressure and I will increase that pressure.
"That's my job because we want to win, and that's why we are now in the period not for giving presents. Every single player has to earn the right to represent the country.
"What I did in the last few years was to test out more than 20 youngsters. It was a result of changing our basic philosophy because we were reliant on six to eight foreign-born players who grew up in Yugoslavia, China, Africa and England.
"We now have players who are produced from our local youth development system like the National Football Academy, the junior centres of excellence and the COE.
"Top players like Hariss (Harun) and Safuwan (Baharudin) are the results of the youth development system that the FAS has put in place many years ago.
"I will choose for all events of the national team one or two of these youngsters who can make it - like a 17-year-old Adam Swandi ( he is 20 now). There will be no more testing (for senior players), but the door is open.
"Show me every week an outstanding performance, that you can run like a horse, you can fight and you deserve a place in the national team."
PLAYERS CALLED UP BY STANGE
*Handed Lions debuts
Zulfadli Zainal Abidin*
Chris van Huizen*
BY THE NUMBERS
Bernd Stange's win-draw-loss record as national coach is 14-4-15 from 33 "A" Internationals. His predecessor Raddy Avramovic's record was 44-31-55 from 130 matches.
Singapore are ranked No. 148 in the Fifa rankings. They were No. 165 when Stange took over in May 2013.
The German has called up no less than 57 players during his tenure as national coach.
Of the 57 players Stange called up, at least 21 were handed their international debuts by the 68-year-old.