Time for updates in Singapore football
From the LionsXII in Malaysia's club competitions, to the core of the national Under-23 side, the S.League's Courts Young Lions, right down to the U-21 side and the Singapore women's team, developmental teams have had a poor run this year.
A report in The New Paper last week wondered if it was time for changes in the Singapore football pipeline, a pertinent question, especially when the domestic league continues to struggle to capture the imagination of the country.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will have its annual general meeting today, when two men, deputy presidents Bernard Tan and Edwin Tong, will perhaps start to play a bigger role, with Tan widely tipped to take over incumbent president Zainudin Nordin next year.
Ahead of a new year for the FAS and Singapore football, and a big one at that, TNP speaks to former technical directors, managers and administrators, who give their take on what ails the sport and how the sport can reboot.
Seak Poh Leong: Project Goal 2010 bore fruit
TNP PHOTO: CHOO CHWEE HUA
Few thought it was possible, many mocked the programme, and the goal was eventually torn up and stored in a dark corner of the Singapore football psyche.
Seak Poh Leong, though, believes the Republic's ambitious plan to qualify for the World Cup Finals - Project Goal 2010 - did benefit football, claiming the positive effects have gone unnoticed.
Today, the former national coach and Lions skipper (above) says football in the country has fallen behind, and feels the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has to make changes before the gap widens even with our regional rivals.
Speaking to The New Paper, Seak said: "The signs are there to suggest that if we don't review what we're doing and admit that we've gone wrong in certain aspects - and change - we will have to accept that others in the region are improving and we're not.
"And that will be sad."
The 61-year-old was referring to the poor run of the LionsXII in Malaysia's club competitions this year, and the performance of the Singapore Under-21s, who were soundly beaten by regional rivals at the recent Hassanal Bolkiah Tournament in Brunei.
Seak, who has also had a stint as FAS director of coaching, has called for more accountability in the FAS and changes to the youth development system.
He also suggested utilising the Foreign Sports Talent scheme to boost standards, like it had in the past.
"While Goal 2010 didn't get us to the World Cup, the plans put in place are among the reasons the national team managed to do well and win three Asean championships (2005, 2007, 2012)," said the former midfielder.
Seak was referring to the fast-tracking of citizenship for selected players, along with a vibrant system that saw S.League clubs run their own youth development programmes.
The current programme sees only three of eight local S.League clubs run youth development programmes due to the stringent criteria set by the FAS.
He also feels the National Football Academy (NFA), which is run by the FAS and houses the various national age-group teams, also hurts local effort when counted alongside the number of youth programmes run by professional clubs.
"The NFA, I think, was a step back in development because it wasn't a country-wide approach, and resulted in a smaller pool of players. It has helped in some way, but for me the negatives outweigh the positives," said Seak. "We must cast the net wider and get all clubs to start developing players again."
Along with a bigger pool of youngsters playing the sport, Seak hopes the national team can be strengthened with foreign talent.
"The national coach's (Bernd Stange) aim to implement a playing philosophy is something I support, but that can only bear fruit in five to 10 years, and only if it is played all the way through the youth teams," he said.
"That may not be enough for us to see success now."
Seak was puzzled over why Stange came out to respond after the poor performances of the U-21 side in Brunei instead of technical director Slobodan Pavkovic, under whose purview comes youth development.
Seak said: "Accountability is a key factor for me.
"Why is the national coach coming out and answering for the U-21's performances in Brunei?
"While I am not familiar with the structure within FAS, that worries me, and makes me question: who is fully in charge of our development plan?"
SEAK POH LEONG
- 1972-76: Singapore national captain
- 1976-81: National youth coach (U-16, U-18, U-20)
- 1985-93: FAS director of coaching
- 1987-88: National coach
- 1997: Chairman of S.League competitions
- 2002: Geylang International head coach
- 2003-10: Geylang director of coaching
S.League a crucial piece of the jigsaw, says Sivaji
TNP PHOTO: CHOO CHWEE HUA
From schedule changes to accommodate national team interests, to seconding some of their best players to bolster the challenge of the LionsXII in Malaysia’s club competitions as well as the Courts Young Lions, S.League clubs have not had an easy time over the last few years.
Most recently, goalkeeper Hassan Sunny’s call-up to the Asian Games squad meant fixture changes in the S.League so that his club Warriors FC would have him in their ranks when their chase for the title resumes in the final half round of matches.
Former Singapore and Home United coach P N Sivaji (above) warned that neglect of the domestic league will only hurt Singapore football and, while solutions may not be immediately apparent, suggested the formation of a committee to balance interests.
He also urged a focus on youth development among the local S.League clubs and coach education programmes to help the league.
“The national team need exposure, to keep their competitive edge and to maintain their Fifa ranking, but there must be balance,” said.
“Let’s not forget where national players come from, and a league without its national players will definitely lose its lustre.”
While the standard of football has increased, the S.League still struggles to capture the imagination of a football-mad nation.
The National Teams’ Committee (NTC) was dissolved after Singapore’s Asean championship win in 2005.
It was an independent body with full authority to appoint the national coach, national team manager and other key national team personnel, including deciding on training tours and friendlies.
Said Sivaji: “In modern football there might not be a place for the NTC as we knew it, but a committee should be set up, with at least three experienced people who know how the game is currently being played and run.
“And they can plan a calendar that fits into the FAS’ plans and balance the needs of the national team and the S.League.”
Formed in 2003, the Young Lions provided a platform for talented youngsters to get game time in the S.League, something they would not have achieved if they stayed with their clubs.
Sivaji, who was also the FAS technical director, suggested an evaluation of the FAS Junior Centres of Excellence (JCOE, for children aged between eight and 12.
“We may not see results the JCOE immediately, but we should check if we are taking the right direction, because in the future these kids will come into the S.League,” said the 62-year-old, who is a coaching instructor with Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation.
“Also, Singapore has the highest ratio of coaches with Pro Licences (20) to players — are they all being employed? We should include them in coach-education, to make sure our coaches get better.”
While increasing the quota of foreign players in the S.League (from four to five last year), may be a stopgap measure to ensure quality, Sivaji does not see it as a long-term solution.
Taking the poor performances of the England team as an example, Sivaji insisted the picture is a clear one.
“If you have too many foreigners playing in your top league, your national team suffers; and if you neglect your domestic league it suffers,
Under-21s' bashing baffles Patrick Ang
TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
The Singapore Under-21s returned home black and blue after losing all five of their matches at last month's Hassanal Bolkiah Tournament in Brunei.
The scale of the defeats - 4-0 to Vietnam, 3-1 to Cambodia, 3-1 to Brunei, 3-0 to Malaysia and 6-0 to Indonesia - has earned the ire of Patrick Ang (above).
The former chairman of the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) National Teams' Committee (NTC) believes those defeats suggest a system that is broken.
"We need a thorough review of what we are doing, not be afraid of admitting that we've gone wrong, and make the changes that need to be made," the former Geylang International chairman said.
He called for better planning and a re-evaluation of the S.League as well as youth development programmes.
"Something is not right somewhere," he said, also, pointing to the poor results suffered by other developmental teams like the LionsXII and the Courts Young Lions.
"When the S.League started, top players from Thailand and Malaysia wanted to come here and play, now our players want to get out and go into their leagues.
"And our (U-21) team get soundly beaten by sides we used to dominate, like Cambodia and Brunei - I think we have to go back to basics."
Ang, 64, who had also managed the national team previously, felt strongly that all S.League clubs should run their own youth development programmes to increase the talent pool (the current system sees only three clubs involved), and reinstating the now-defunct NTC to help find balance in local football.
"We have an inverse pyramid in terms of football talent now. The FAS has talent in big numbers (Courts Young Lions, LionsXII and National Football Academy players), while the clubs at the bottom have little. That's wrong," he said.
"That means that the S.League becomes a bad product, and Singaporeans are not stupid, they can see that.
"A small pool of players leads to a poor league, and a poor league means a poor national team."
Before its dissolution in 2005, the NTC, an independent committee, was involved in planning the calendar for the various national teams, and a league calendar would be constructed around it.
Between the LionsXII doing battle in Malaysia's club competitions and the Courts Young Lions (effectively the national U-23 team), the S.League has lost 60 of the country's best players, and Ang believes a review is in order.
"Admittedly, it is difficult to plan if we are not consistent in our policies, so we need to do some soul searching, decide what we want to do with the S.League, and if we so decide - put more effort into reviving it," he said.
"Let's go back to the drawing board, invite views - the FAS must trust clubs, and clubs must trust the FAS. Let's give football a chance."