Youth development vital for Singapore football: Edwin Tong
As FAS works on blueprint with an eye on World Cup 2034, MCCY Minister suggests football academies and schools can boost the local game
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) is in the midst of putting together a blueprint to turn the country's football fortunes around, looking towards the 2034 World Cup.
To improve the standard of the game in any country, youth has to be the starting point and, in a recent interview with The New Paper, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Edwin Tong said there could be football academies set up within schools.
Mr Tong stopped short of providing details and said an announcement will be made "soon".
He said: "The details of the plan has to come through, which will be done soon. It is being ironed out, FAS will make the announcement appropriately."
He mooted the 2034 target in August 2019 when he was still FAS vice-president, stepping down from the position last year when he took over at MCCY, a ministry that also oversees sport in the country.
While there is "a lot of scepticism" of Singapore's lofty ambition, he says it is a worthy pursuit that will improve the standard of the game here and suggested that young football dreamers will be "excited" once details of the blueprint are revealed.
"One of the key planks will be how we give structure to the development of young talent. Our young talent spend a lot of their time in school, so what we do with the schools is going to be key," Mr Tong said.
"There must be a clear path - training on the pitch, and things like fitness, nutrition, a player's mental fortitude - these are off the pitch but equally important.
"Having good coaches, a common system of play, wrapped around a football academy for those with the best potential, so that they can train, compete, and at the same time, continue with their studies, or possibly earn a scholarship to go overseas.
"That's what I mean by exciting kids, and their parents."
A more traditional academy set-up Mr Tong is impressed with is the Lion City Sailors (LCS) Football Academy at Mattar Road, which last September became the first in Singapore to be awarded a one-star rating by the Asian Football Confederation.
The only academies on the continent with the maximum three-star rating are the Aspire Academy in Qatar, South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Academy and Vietnam's PVF Football Academy.
The Singapore Premier League giants have committed $1 million over four years to their academy, with the bulk of it going towards this year's 25-strong pioneer cohort of 12-year-olds. They will soon be honing their skills at a new $10-million, 17,000 sq m facility which is due to open next year.
Said Mr Tong: "I'm very excited about what LCS is doing... I think if you've seen the blueprint, it's a fantastic facility.
"It gives you a sense of professionalism, to bring the young people through to an academy like this, it's something that's also inspirational.
"You'll want to play in the academy. And you couple that with the scholarship that they have in place, I think you're on to a good thing, which I hope can be scaled up over time."
In September 2019, FAS vice-president Bernard Tan shared some broad building blocks for the 2034 project.
They included increasing the base of talent aged from six to 12 by around four times to 10,000, partially by proposing that schools without pitches promote indoor football.
There are also plans to improve coaching standards, decentralise youth development, increase the number of players in elite pipelines and improve support in the areas of sports science and technology.
Players will also be encouraged to further their development abroad at college or professional levels.
At the FAS annual congress last September, it was announced that a committee would be set up to oversee the push for 2034, and it would comprise representatives from the national sports association and other stakeholders such as MCCY and Sport Singapore.
That committee will be well aware of the long shadow of the failed Goal 2010 ambition.
First mooted in 1998, the bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals was abandoned in June 2004, and the focus was revised towards Singapore becoming one of Asia's top-10 sides within five years.
The Lions were ranked 140th in the Fifa rankings in 2010. Today, they are 33rd in Asia and 158th in the world.
Said Mr Tong: "I'm mindful of the comparisons, I think it is inevitable.
"And it's recent history, recent memory but, at the same time, we felt that if we didn't make this push that was bold enough, grab people's attention, then we might lose the opportunity to reinvigorate local football...
"So it's a challenging timeline, 15 years when we first announced it, near enough so it's within our time horizon, and today's kids in school will be central to that plan."