Unleash the Roar project: Local core, but foreigners to add more
Unleash the Roar project aims to find right blend of homegrown and imported talent
When announcing the details of the Unleash the Roar initiative last week, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) deputy president Bernard Tan was keen to stress that locals would form the "base" of the project.
But foreign talent is also part of the national project - albeit in a supplementary role - to uplift the standard of Singapore football, with the "aspirational" target of qualifying for World Cup 2034.
Said Tan: "It doesn't rule out the inculcation of foreigners into the national team, but certainly the base has to be Singaporean."
This is a markedly different tack from the nation's last grand plan to qualify for a World Cup.
The unsuccessful Goal 2010 initiative was first mooted in 1998 and, in his National Day Rally speech that year, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said naturalised players were key to the project.
The Brazilian-born Egmar Goncalves became the first product of the FAS' Foreign Sports Talent (FST) scheme in 2002.
Eight others followed, with fellow overseas-born players such as Aleksandar Duric turning out for the Lions after successfully applying for citizenship on his own.
While their South-east Asian rivals have since ramped up their naturalisation drives, the FAS has not gone down that path since Qiu Li in 2010.
Within its eight pillars of the Unleash the Roar project, the FAS and Sport Singapore (SportSG) have laid out their new approach to foreign talent.
Aside from furnishing local and foreign football scholarships to budding young Singaporean talent, the project also aims to identify "10 talented young footballers for local FST Football Scholarship(s)".
They "should be at least 13-15 years old" and recruitment will be focused on local private academies and "Central Europe and Asean/Asia".
Said Tan: "At this age, if there are talented foreigners that find training in Singapore attractive, we will welcome them.
"This will allow the ecosystem to improve, especially if the foreign talent are also very precocious, allow our own players to benchmark themselves and allow a pathway for these talented foreigners to be naturalised as citizens at a very early age."
Former Singapore coach and technical director P. N. Sivaji, who had previously said that the past approach to naturalisation did not work as planned, is more receptive to this model.
The Brunei technical director told The New Paper: "That becomes almost a Singaporean core, because if they are in Singapore longer, over time they identify almost like Singaporeans...
"It helps the identity of the team when they (overseas-born players) are like 75 per cent local and 25 per cent foreign."
Besides foreign teens, Tan also said he was looking at players with Singaporean heritage.
Defender Perry Ng, 24, of English second-tier side Cardiff City and defender-cum-midfielder Luke O'Nien, 26, of third-tier Sunderland are both eligible under Fifa rules to play for the Lions via their Singapore-born grandfathers.
However, the British passport holders cannot turn out for the Lions unless they obtain a Singaporean passport. Singaporean citizens are not allowed to hold dual nationality.
In addition, Wolverhampton Wanderers' Under-18 defender Harry Birtwistle, 17, and goalkeeper Andreas Jungdal, 19, who is training with AC Milan's first team, are both listed as being born in Singapore on their respective club's websites.
Ng told TNP in 2019 that he would consider giving up his British passport to play for the Lions if he could continue playing in England, while O'Nien also expressed interest in donning the national jersey, but admitted that it may prove too "complicated".
On players from the diaspora, Tan told TNP: "That's also an option, but of course, our citizenship rules are a little more constraining, because we don't allow dual citizenship...
"We will look at all possible foreign players that have affiliation to Singapore... They don't have to play in the SPL (Singapore Premier League), but they can play for the national team."
When pressed about Government rules which would require individuals like Ng and O'Nien to fulfil residency requirements to gain citizenship, Tan suggested that the 2034 project might offer more scope to explore solutions.
He said: "For that part, it's within our control under Goal 2034, we'll look at the approach. Of course, we work with the laws governing our country, but so long as basically it's left to some subjectivity, we can obviously push it."
SCOUTING HAS TO STEP UP
Former Lions defender and founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global R. Sasikumar is an advocate of naturalising players with Singaporean lineage.
He said: "Like how Malaysia, the Philippines have been doing it, we should be looking at kids with Singaporean heritage.
"Take Luke O'Nien and Perry Ng, these are two that we know (of). There are many like them around the world as Singapore is a cosmopolitan country, with many interracial marriages.
"So our scouting has got to step it up, I would rather have those kind of players... playing in bigger leagues...
"We are guaranteed better quality than trying to take those people who come and play in our league."
- ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NARENDAREN KARNAGERAN