Video: S'porean U-11 boys make waves in Gothia Cup in Sweden
Could they be Singapore's next generation of top footballers?
Last month, a team of 12 boys, all local-born and led by former international Steven Tan, ventured into the unknown when they flew all the way to Gothenburg, Sweden, to take part in the Gothia Cup.
The tournament is dubbed as the Youth World Cup for its scale - 1,650 teams from 73 countries took part in 15 boys' and girls' categories from Under-11 to Under-19 this year.
Showing no fear or nerves, the Under-11 boys from the F-17 Fandi Ahmad's Academy of Football Excellence won seven out of eight matches - all against European opposition in a seven-a-side format - to finish third out of 124 teams in their category, losing only to eventual champions TJK Legion Tallinn from Estonia in the semi-finals.
In recent years, Singapore's youth teams have hardly covered themselves in glory with poor results in regional competitions, the exception being a bronze medal in the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games football tournament in Singapore, which featured six teams.
However, the F-17 Academy firmly believes the future can be bright, after seeing its boys perform at the Gothia Cup, which has a reputation for being the launchpad of many professional careers.
Former England striker Alan Shearer took part in the Gothia Cup as part of the Wellington Juniors' team in 1985, while Italy's midfield star Andrea Pirlo played in 1990 for US Voluntas.
Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso also featured in 1995 for Basque youth team, Antiguoko.
"We sent an all-Singaporean team to the Gothia Cup with the objective of pitting our young players, who were trained under our training system, against the best in the world," said Nabil Yusoff, co-director of the F-17 Academy.
"Our boys played their hearts out and, against all expectations, topped their group and went all the way to the semi-finals.
"Finishing third out of 124 teams in a global football tournament of such scale could be a first for any Singaporean team, and we proved common misconceptions about size and build wrong."
Indeed, the team of Ethan Gomez, Zachary Chua, Mani Chidambaram, Iain Yeow, Nufayl Shawal, Ilhan Fandi Ahmad, Syafi Hilman Hisham, Ong Yu En, Marc Ryan Tan, Aqil Dany Jahsh Ruzzman, Danish Siregar and Sham Syed often found themselves up against towering opponents, but still found a way to prevail with their speed and skills.
Zachary said: "It was a wonderful experience playing against many different teams from different countries and bonding with my own teammates.
"It was an eye-opener in terms of the different football styles, and we can improve our game even more. Hopefully, one day, we can play for the national team and play in a big league."
After their successful outing, the F-17 Academy plans to send the same team, and others from its stable, to next year's Gothia Cup.
"We plan to continue to give our boys the relevant exposure," said Nabil, who estimated the costs of this year's adventure to be around $100,000, which includes co-payment from parents and help from sponsors.
"This is to enable them to go through a yearly process of playing against the best, to see if our boys can continue to compete at the highest levels in the older age groups."
In addition to the 12 boys and four coaching staff, the F-17 Academy also hired a film crew to document the team's endeavours in Sweden, so that the young guns can start building their own football CVs. Ilhan and Marc's outstanding finishing can be viewed on www.tnp.sg.
And you can catch the team live in action today when they take part in the inaugural Fandi Ahmad Cup, held in conjunction with the ITE Fiesta, at the ITE College West at Choa Chu Kang from 1pm to 5.30pm.
The F-17 Academy, who aims to unearth the next Asean football star, has more than 500 players in six centres based in the east, west and central Singapore. Another training centre is scheduled to be opened in the northern part of Singapore.