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What it will take to make Singapore football great again

The problem is not a weaker national team than in the past but how other countries have overtaken Singapore in mastering the modern, higher-tempo game.

There has been plenty of feedback from Singaporeans on local football and the state of our national team. One letter by Mr Simon Owen Khoo was published on June 30 in The Straits Times Forum ("Continuity from youth football to senior level sorely lacking").

I am heartened that so many Singaporeans care so much about football. Such passion is needed for us to raise our footballing standards across the board. In my three years on the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) board, I have made it my duty to try to understand the issues in depth as the road to football nirvana is a complex one. And in so doing, I would like to offer some perspectives to challenge the conventional way of thinking on this issue.

1) THE NATIONAL TEAM

A common belief is that our national team has deteriorated and is not up to the standards of teams of the past, especially those in the glory days of the19 70s, 1980s and 1990s. I do not believe that to be the case.

Football today is a fundamentally different game from that played decades ago. It is now played at a far higher tempo with much less time and space for each player on the ball. I would argue that our players today are fitter, technically more proficient and stronger on the ball than the players of the past.

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In the 1970s, the average distance covered by an outfield player at the top level was less than 8km. Today, it is in excess of 11km. At the top levels, teams press for the ball all over the field. Almost one third of all goals are scored on lightning-fast counter-attacks. The long ball has more or less been eliminated as a style of play. Our players are today exposed to this higher level of football, which the likes of Quah Kim Song, Dollah Kassim and Samad Allapitchay never have been exposed to in their time.

What has happened is that other teams have moved forward faster in playing the modern game and, relative to them, we have fallen behind. There are large systemic changes that have taken place in society and in the game, and our systems have not caught up. Some countries like the Philippines and Qatar have focused on naturalising talent. That, however, is not the path we want to take. We want to develop our own home-grown talent. (But of course, we will always keep open the option of strategically naturalising a few special talents that can greatly improve our team performance.)

2) FOOTBALL AMONG THE YOUNG

It is often said that countries with smaller populations than Singapore serve up national teams that are ranked many rungs above us - Uruguay, Croatia, Iceland and Costa Rica, just to name a few. However, it is not population size that matters but how many kids actually play football regularly, for that is the crux of the issue.

Modern soccer disproportionately rewards technical skills and not just effort. A critical mass of children playing the game from a very young age is essential as that ensures a pool of players with technical skills. Some coaches argue that basic skills are set by the ages of 12 to 14, beyond which they are difficult to teach. The window is small, so we need our children to start playing early.

On a per capita basis, the four above-mentioned countries have more children playing football regularly than we do. For those countries, soccer is almost a national religion. Parents, teachers and communities encourage their children, both boys and girls, from the age of five or six to play the game actively. They play it everywhere, every day.

Singapore's active participation rate in soccer is very low. For primary school-going students, the rate is 5 per cent for boys and 1 per cent for girls. In most footballing nations, the numbers are north of 25 per cent. In Brazil, it is possibly 70 per cent of boys. We need to ask ourselves why as a nation we - parents and teachers, who have the biggest influence on children - do not encourage our children to play the game.

Some argue that the economic realities of Singapore work against us. Our children are too comfortable. In many developing countries, football is seen as a way out of poverty and that provides an incentive to play. But I would argue that young children do not start playing football for economic considerations. They do so in Costa Rica and Uruguay for the same reason as they do here - because it is fun. We need our children to play and with that comes the third challenge.

3) FACILITIES

To develop the necessary technical skills, we need our children to have constant practice in playing in small enclosed spaces, with an emphasis on short quick passes coupled with a high degree of movement.

Brazilian children play soccer every day and everywhere, including on the narrow streets of their favelas. Games are long and intense. That is also the case in Uruguay and rural Spain. The 10,000 hours needed to master skills have to be clocked and that calls for three to four sessions of practice a week - no different to the intensity required of an aspiring swimmer or pianist.

In the countries cited earlier, there are areas for young children to kick a ball around without the need to pay or make prior arrangements. Not so in Singapore because we live in a dense urban landscape.

Some countries have made a decision to overcome their natural constraints so as to make soccer a priority. Iceland is a good example. The government built 30 full-sized fields and 150 indoor soccer facilities for a population of about , with at least one facility in every school for people to use all year round.

If Singapore were to try and match that on a per capita basis, it would need over 500 full-sized fields and 2,500 government funded facilities for soccer practice. Those are staggering numbers and we lack the land for the facilities. We thus need to find other ways to ensure our children enjoy priority in the use of available facilities for frequent soccer practice, either to kick the ball for sheer fun or to play games. That was what the older ones amongst us used to do in school fields, void decks and carparks, places which are now restricted. What would help are more artificial pitches, and more floodlit and covered facilities, for use by children.

Good coaching would help too. Iceland launched a programme to get its physical education teachers certified by the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) as football coaches. It has an amazing 639 Uefa B-licenced coaches. The equivalent in Singapore would be 10,500 Uefa B licenced coaches.

To develop, local players also need intense competitions, exposure to top talent at the international level and a good professional league.

The road to reach the pinnacle of soccer is a complex one and each country must choose its own route. The question is how much we as a nation want it. The FAS can lead in visioning but it needs to work with schools, the community, parents, teachers, children and volunteers. Most importantly, it needs government support to help make things happen. Soccer is a national project in terms of resources - it requires people, time, land use and, most of all, funds. In that sense, it takes a whole country to get soccer right.

But at the most basic level, it first boils down to families encouraging their sons and daughters to learn to play the beautiful game. I have seen volunteers do great things to spur that along. Our children need our encouragement to enjoy the game we all love, and that is where change will start. For if our children play, the rest of the issues will sort themselves out.


  • The writer is FAS deputy president.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2017, with the headline 'What it will take to make S'pore football great again'. Print Edition | Subscribe