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How Singapore football hit rock bottom

Football: Fresh impetus badly needed

Where can Singapore football find post-AFF Cup redemption and how will the next generation blossom? Long-term planning must be the key

If the Singapore national team's abysmal Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup showing two weeks ago saw the country's No. 1 sport go up in smoke, the fuse that lit the bomb can be traced back to the day it was decided the Republic's best young players should play across the Causeway.

Then, in 2011, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) struck an agreement with its Malaysian counterpart to send their developmental squads to play in each other's domestic leagues. The concept of the LionsXII was born, taking with it the best of the fledglings.

That was also the year former Geylang International chairman Patrick Ang decided to quit the game after serving the S-League club in various capacities over 26 years.

Now 66, he told The Sunday Times: "In 2012, when I left Geylang, my parting words to the FAS were, 'If you continue to focus on the Young Lions and the LionsXII, five years from now, you will be playing against Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia'."

That proved prophetic. With the AFF Cup failure, the Lions are now slated to play in the qualifiers - with Laos, Brunei and Timor-Leste - for the 2018 edition after finishing bottom of Group A behind Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The miserable outing, Singapore's worst at the competition, produced one draw, two defeats, one goal scored and three conceded.

GETTING THE BALANCE WRONG

The S-League clubs are the base of the pyramid but the FAS has taken the cream of the clubs' talent. It became an inverted pyramid and the roof came crashing down.

PATRICK ANG, former Geylang International chairman.

PAPERING OVER THE CRACKS

The LionsXII was the easier project to cover up the lack of interest in the S-League. It was not rocket science. You just had to take care of one team instead of an entire league, it was convenient but short-term thinking.

R. SASIKUMAR, managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Group and a former Singapore international defender.

BROKEN SYSTEM

Along the way, the Angkor Warriors, once fodder for the Lions, evolved into their preferred sparring partners with the teams meeting six times in the past three years. Now, not only are Cambodia no longer whipping boys for Singapore, but they are also almost equals.

A veteran S-League club official believes FAS general secretary Winston Lee, who is also an Asian Football Confederation vice-president, and lawyer Lim Kia Tong, the association's interim president and the deputy head of Fifa's disciplinary committee, could have done more.

He said: "Winston and Kia Tong hold powerful posts in the AFC and Fifa. They would have networked with the top people in football. They could have used those connections to help arrange quality friendly games for Singapore. We cannot be playing Cambodia all the time."

At home, the arrival of former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant in January was supposed to herald a revival but the S-League failed to capitalise on the buzz and attendances plummeted after an initial spike.

And now, with the FAS still unable to secure funding from the Tote Board for next season's S-League, many players, including the Lions, have been left in limbo.

This also had an effect on the Lions' performance at the AFF Cup.

A current international, who was in V. Sundramoorthy's squad, said: "Morale was low because this was the first time we went into a major tournament with so many players unable to secure a contract for next season.

"It did not help that there were cliques in the team. The players were not fighting but the different groups in the camp don't really talk to each other.

"Several more are taking pay cuts because of the uncertainty in the S-League."

 
 

R. Sasikumar, managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Group and a former national defender, said: "This (slump) is something that has been happening for a long time. It was one mistake after another and finally we are in this situation.

"The system (in Singapore football) is broken, it is a huge failure, but nothing has been done."

OLD PROBLEMS UNRESOLVED

Sasikumar lay the blame squarely at the FAS' door, lamenting that instead of fixing the S-League, which had been plagued by low standards, poor crowds and players suffering job insecurity, it chose to get involved in Malaysian football again.

"The LionsXII was the easier project to cover up the lack of interest in the S-League," he lamented.

"It was not rocket science. You just had to take care of one team instead of an entire league, it was convenient but short-term thinking.

"The problem with the S-League was never diagnosed. Rather than take the painful route to rethink the S-League, we just put a plaster over the wound."

Ang, the chairman of both shipping company Evergreen Line and airline Eva Air, believes that the responsibility for talent development should have remained with the S-League clubs. With the formation of the Young Lions, and subsequently the LionsXII, the six local S-League clubs had little incentive to groom youth players since they rarely got to retain them.

He said: "The S-League clubs are the base of the pyramid but the FAS has taken the cream of the clubs' talent. It became an inverted pyramid and the roof came crashing down."

ABYSMAL AGE-GROUP RESULTS

Ang and Sasikumar are not exaggerating when they say Singapore football has hit rock-bottom. The string of defeats suffered by the FAS' age-group teams from Under-14s to the U-23s, indicate that lean years lie ahead.

Since 2014, the U-23s have lost 64 per cent of their games, the U-22s suffered a 67 per cent defeat rate while the U-21s were beaten in a staggering 85 per cent of their matches, which includes embarrassing 1-3 reversals to Brunei and Cambodia at the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy tournament two years ago.

But even with the FAS monopolising the best youngsters for the National Football Academy's age-group sides, the results have been less than ideal.

Sasikumar explained: "The NFA created players who think they are untouchable and this all led to the SEA Games debacle last year (amidst rumblings that the players were ill-disciplined).

"Players learn when they are with the clubs, when they mix with senior players, when they have to fight for a place."

As the fraternity waits for the FAS to roll out a rescue plan, Sasikumar believes that it is already too late to salvage the situation in the short term.

He stated: "The S-League should have been relooked when we won the Suzuki Cups (in 2004, 2007 and 2012) in the past decade. We were on a high then. But we just continued to think that everything seemed to be working, it became our 'World Cup' and that was to be our undoing.

"It's obvious we have reached rock-bottom and this situation could last for a decade as we wait for the future crop of youngsters to grow up."

CHANCE TO CHANGE

Still, with the association heading into the new year looking to elect its own set of leaders for the first time in more than three decades, observers feel now is the time to reflect and react.

Ang said: "The incumbents should take responsibility. As the records show, they have failed and must take stock of what happened. This is all public money.

"We need somebody with charisma, integrity and honesty to run Singapore football.

"It is a massive job, it's not for part-timers. Maybe it is time the incumbents consider giving way to others."

Ex-Singapore wing-back Tan Kim Leng, who was spotted by Warriors FC at the age of 16, believes a return to the days when S-League clubs were actively churning out players, will rejuvenate the Lions.

The 39-year-old said: "When I was a young player, we were trained by our clubs and there were competitions from U-12 to U-18 levels before we graduated to the S-League. And if you were not good enough, you could still play for your school.

"You need youth to continue rejuvenating the national team and we don't have that at the moment."

Former Tampines Rovers chairman Teo Hock Seng believes it is possible to produce a strong national team - if clubs and the FAS work hand in hand as examples across the world have proven.

The managing director of Komoco Motors, 70,added: "Our youth development is not doing enough. It has to be relooked.

"In Spain, the top two clubs (Barcelona and Real Madrid) provide the bulk of the national team players.

"In Indonesia, the national team could only pick two players from each club for this AFF Cup (owing to Indonesian Super League commitments) but they are doing so well, the spirit is there.

"Malaysia sent the Harimau Muda to train in Slovakia and play in the S-League. They benefited from playing against older and more experienced players in Singapore."

Backed by the country's richest man, billionaire U Tay Za, AFF Cup semi-finalists Myanmar qualified for Fifa's U-20 World Cup last year and that generation looks set to blossom in the coming years.

From 2007 to 2013, Indonesia sent its U-17s and U-19s to play in the junior divisions of Uruguay. Midfielder Evan Dimas and defender Abduh Lestaluhu have fired the Garudas into this year's final, where they will meet Thailand.

Their progress contrasts starkly with the Lions' slump.

Sasikumar, for one, hopes there is real change this time, saying: "I am tired of talking about it (the slump) because I've talked about it until I'm blue in the face."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Fresh impetus badly needed'. Print Edition | Subscribe