Zainudin: We'll send more young talent abroad
The year 2014 ended painfully for Singapore football, as the Lions crashed out of the group stages of the Suzuki Cup, where they were the defending champions.
But the new year has already begun on a positive note, with Lions defender Safuwan Baharudin securing a three-month loan deal to A-League side Melbourne City - a move brokered by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).
Before Safuwan, Lions midfielder Hariss Harun attracted the interest of Portugease side Rio Ave before signing for Malaysian Super League side Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), while rising star Adam Swandi, 18, was sent on a year-long stint at FC Metz in France.
Besides Harun, national captain Shahril Ishak and defender Baihakki Khaizan are plying their trade for JDT's second-tier side in the Malaysian Premier League.
In an interview with The New Paper, FAS president Zainudin Nordin promises that more local players will follow in the footsteps of the above-mentioned players.
Sending young talent overseas is one important strategy the FAS is actively pursuing and the football chief is confident that the Republic has enough talent to make the grade overseas and, hopefully, Europe in the near future.
Despite the lack of resources, a developmental fund has been set aside towards this end.
"We think we have a good problem now. How do we take care of players who now have opportunities to play overseas?" Zainudin said.
"Hariss, Safuwan and Adam are just the first few, and we are confident there will be more of these players.
"It's important that our players move up the career path, from the S.League all the way, hopefully, to Europe."
This is just one of many initiatives FAS is working hard on behind the scenes to make Singapore a respected football force not only in the region, but also at the Asian level.
With the South-east Asia (SEA) Games to be held here in June, the national Under-23 team have been sent on an overseas stint to Turkey to prepare them for an assault on the elusive football gold medal.
And to ensure that Aide iskandar's men are in the best possible shape, the FAS has also arranged friendly matches against respectable opponents in the form of Japan and Syria.
World governing body Fifa has endorsed how well the FAS has punched above its weight (see pullout quote), referencing the disparity in funding Singapore football receives in comparison to its Asean rivals.
Last year, the FAS operated on a budget of $9.7 million, behind Indonesia ($112m), Vietnam ($60m), Thailand ($52m) and Malaysia ($35m).
Putting things into perspective, Zainudin said the FAS has done well to execute its 10-year Strategic Plan despite the limited resources.
"Some people may say the national team didn't do well, so we failed," he said.
"But that's just one of the subjects. There are other foundations put in place, and all that came at a stretch because we were starting with a dollar and needed two or three dollars to run.
"So people have to look at it with perspective. Our return of investment has been good and Fifa has come out to say this openly."
The 51-year-old, however, insisted that the FAS is not running away from the fact that the young talent coming through the national football academy system can be better.
The S.League, as well, is far from a finished product, struggling with low attendance figures.
In a bid to shake things up, a league review is planned for later this week.
"We know we're not perfect. But, whatever constraints we have, we don't use that as an excuse," said Zainudin, who has been in charge since 2009.
"We try as much as possible to use the resources we have... Sometimes we make mistakes, but we want changes. And, when you make changes, you're bound to make mistakes.
"But, whatever it is, the drive is towards getting it better."
Plans for a new national training centre are already afoot.
Expected to cost $25.7 million to build, the centre should be ready by December 2017 once a location is decided.
"The national training centre is important to show we are serious about football. We want to have our own place, preferably as close as possible to the Sports Hub," Zainudin explained.
Reaching out to schools to get more kids playing the sport is another priority on the FAS' agenda.
A "Cubs Programme" has been introduced for the purpose of unearthing more young talent island wide.
"The Cubs Programme has two phases. The first is getting more school teams out there," revealed Zainudin.
"Our numbers have increased from 200 to around 300 school teams, with some schools having two teams.
"The second phase is centred on those (footballers) who don't make it into the school team. How do you incorporate non-school players and late bloomers into the football ecosystem? That's what this project is all about."
The programme will launch via six to 10 schools, with a target of creating a pool of 150 footballers eventually.
The FAS will work beyond the school structure, with clubs and community partners, so as to net more young talent for its junior centres of excellence (COEs).
"Wherever the talent are, you have to find them," Zainudin added.
"But, when you do, how do you ensure the youths continue to become better and not drop out of the sport?
"This is a skill set we need to build, and that's why we need a good technical team. We need to have youth coaches who are excellent, compared to what we have now."
Despite tight resources, the FAS is set to form a new technical team built around a new technical director (TD) - to be appointed next month.
The national body is also looking into appointing a top-class coach instructor.
"The job of the coach instructor is to create quality coaches and coach instructors," Zainudin said.
"We need more coach instructors so that we can produce more coaches. As I've said before, we want the coach of the national team and the TD to be local in the future.
"But that takes time and we need to have a proper pathway for them."
The $25-million partnership with MP & Silva, announced earlier this month, will enable the FAS to send more coaches abroad for stints in Asia and Europe between three and six months.
The ultimate aim is to groom 20 elite youth coaches in Singapore in the next two years.
Said Zainudin: "We're looking for 20 elite coaches, who will groom the current batch of 11- and 12-year-olds who can compete in the 2021 Under-20 World Cup.
"These youth coaches are the ones who will change Singapore football forever."
"Despite budget constraints, the FAS has a strong record of generating considerable returns on its investment, a definite strength in Singapore football. Fifa has long recognised the expertise of the management personnel in Singapore football, utilising these skills in consultancy work as Fifa instructors across the confederations."
- Fifa president Sepp Blatter, praising the FAS last year