Leonard Thomas: Let's make football a national agenda
With Sablon here, the moment has come to be bold and innovative to revive Singapore's No. 1 sport
When he talks football, his eyes dance, he is forceful and passionate in describing how beautiful it is, and how it is the perfect fit in young DNA.
Michel Sablon is from Belgium, a nation that produced a gifted team in the 1980s adorned by the likes of Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo and Jean-Marie Pfaff; and who currently have a side inspired by a clutch of talented individuals, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.
The 69-year-old is the technical director of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS); a world-class mind who played a key role in dragging Belgium from the depths in the late 1990s back into the top tier of the international game.
Even as dark clouds continue to swirl over the sport here today, Sablon believes his development programme will see Singapore football rise again.
I believe he can pull it off, if the Government helps him and turns football into a national agenda.
It is the country's No. 1 sport and, as the FAS prepares for its first leadership election this year, this moment presents an ideal opportunity to start with a fresh slate, allowing stakeholders to come together and focus on a national programme for the game.
This with Sablon's development strategy as the country's syllabus.
Maybe Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu wonders why she should fuss over a sport that is struggling to make an impression these days.
The lack of progress in the S.League over the years has led to a general drop in the standard of local football.
After the abysmal performance of the Singapore Under-23s at the South-east Asia Games on home soil in 2015 and the Lions' first-round exit from the Asean title fight last year, the gloom surrounding the game deepened.
But there is hope.
Hired by the FAS in April 2015 to change the face of youth development in the country and ensure a regular pipeline of talent, Sablon has already instituted a major revamp within the various national age-group teams - primarily with basic skills at the outset, playing styles, individual player development, fitness and discipline.
Football is the sport that excites youngsters the most.
Boys of every hue here are always thrilled to play and have fun, making friends - some of them lifelong - developing motor skills and keeping healthy.
Some inevitably exhibit unique ability with a ball that will make the sport's tutors take notice and draft them for serious development.
Only football can do this in Singapore, especially with more and more young girls also wanting to play the game.
Today, around 45 per cent of schools here play football. It is time the Ministry of Education (MOE) makes the game mandatory, because our children and the country can only benefit.
WORKING WITH MOE
Sablon's technical team at the FAS can train a whole swathe of coaches to run the football programme in every school and the Belgian is more than happy to do it.
In a bid to grow the population of pre-teen and early-teen footballers, FAS vice-president Bernard Tan worked with Sablon to convince MOE to tweak the schools' competition to give young hopefuls more games.
Sablon's start point is that pre-teens today must play five-a-side games using only their feet.
He demands fitness and discipline, and the older sides have been warned smoking is out.
He emphasises that winning is not important for these youth sides, the demand is that they play the game the right way.
Sablon believes the results will start to show in three to four years.
Refreshingly, he doesn't complain about National Service and wants to engage Mindef, with one idea to send his coaches to train the footballers at their various military camps.
Funding for the game has been consistently debated over the years.
The S.League receives around $17 million from the Tote Board every year.
Between Sport SG and the Tote Board, and monies raised through sponsorship, the annual budget of the FAS hovers around $12m.
Not including their respective leagues, the Thai and Malaysian FAs reportedly operate with $70m each per year, while Indonesia spends $160m.
Perennial Asian powerhouse South Korea allocates $135m per year, while Japan's annual figure stands at $374m.
To turn Singapore football into a national ambition, funding must increase and the National Training Centre Sablon has asked for should come to life, with school teams, national age-group sides and the Lions using it as their base.
I talked to Sport SG's chief executive Lim Teck Yin recently and he reinforced the notion of football as the only sport able to capture the imagination of the nation, including every race, creed, gender and age group.
So many swarmed the old football cathedral at Kallang in 2004 when Singapore, backed by 55,000 souls in red and so many more watching on TV, became Asean champions for the second time after victory over Indonesia.
The new National Stadium must host Lions who prowl with menace again.
I hope Sablon gets his chance to present his blueprint to Minister Fu and her top advisors at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
MAKING FANS PROUD
The aim is not to qualify for the World Cup or for the Lions to be Asia's No. 1.
The goal is to construct a pipeline that intermittently moulds a unique talent like Fandi Ahmad or V Sundramoorthy who can excite a nation.
The idea is to consistently produce Singapore teams that play football the right way and give the continent's best a tough contest and do our fans proud.
And if we get it right, then, on occasion, the national team will feature a bunch of gifted individuals who form a team good enough to achieve something special.
Turning football into a national agenda only benefits Singapore. Let's play ball with the incoming FAS leadership and Sablon.