Commentary

Is Strange Stange the right choice?

For the second time in as many days, Singapore coach Bernd Stange went on the offensive - though it had little to do with football.

After accusing the media of lacking professionalism on the eve of the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia, the German fired pot shots again at journalists and fans for "unrealistic" demands following Tuesday's unconvincing 2-1 win.

Strange behaviour.

Perhaps the 67-year-old forgot that their opponents had entered the game without a goal or a point in their first four Group E qualifiers.

Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade: That it is likely that the FAS gave Stange the extension only because it meant that it then did not have to make two tough decisions - breaking up the team that drew with mighty Japan and having to decide between Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy as Stange's successor.

Perplexingly, he insisted his team "don't have the quality to kick a team like Cambodia by four or five goals out of our stadium".

Perhaps the fact that Singapore brushed past the same opponents 4-0 in Phnom Penh in June slipped his mind?

Maybe the outburst was brought about by the fans' chants of "boring, boring" as Stange's Lions spent the final minutes of the match protecting the lead.

After all, it was the first time that fans have made their frustrations known during his 2 1/2-year reign.

Only the veteran German coach knows the reasons for his flare-ups. But he must concede that it is not too much to demand that Singapore show more quality against the likes of Cambodia and Afghanistan.

He talked a big game when he took on the job in May 2013, referencing Barcelona's tiki-taka philosophy as the way forward. He asked for at least six months for his revolution to take effect.

Fast forward nearly 30 months, and even the most ardent follower will be hard-pressed to say that the Lions resemble that pass-and-move side.

It is little wonder that the national team were able to fill only less than a fifth of the 55,000-capacity stadium.

With the Lions hoping to make the state-of-the-art venue their permanent home, one then has to ask: Is Stange the man to lead them in this new era?

Even the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) seems unsure of what the answer is. Why else would it extend his contract for only six months, his second short-term contract after a three-month deal in June?

Such a short-sighted approach is rare in international football and out of sync with the FAS' recent moves to hire top European coaches - namely technical director Michel Sablon and head coach of national youth teams Richard Tardy - on long-term deals.

One only has to look at Stange's time as national coach to realise how ordinary it is. A 45 per cent win rate in his 31 games in charge looks decent on paper.

But, apart from a 2-1 win over Syria in an Asian Cup qualifier in 2013, most of those wins were against lesser-ranked opposition.

Stange does deserve credit for handing international debuts to rising talents like Faris Ramli and Amirul Adli.

But surely a coach who has previously helmed East Germany, Iraq and Belarus must be held to a higher standard than just simply blooding a handful of youngsters?

He has repeatedly said it takes time to build a good football team. It is worthwhile to note that in the time he inherited a Singapore team who beat Thailand to the 2012 Asean crown, the Thais have gone on to embrace the brand of football that he preaches and become one of the top teams in the qualifiers.

Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade: That it is likely that the FAS gave Stange the extension only because it meant that it then did not have to make two tough decisions - breaking up the team who drew with mighty Japan and having to decide between Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy as Stange's successor.

June's 0-0 draw against Japan was a stunning result. So stunning it probably got the FAS dreaming of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup, which a top-two finish in the ongoing group qualifiers could bring. So why break up the team?

By keeping Stange, the FAS also banished the need to find a replacement, had the German been allowed to leave last month.

His departure would mean the FAS having to scramble for a new coach on short notice and all signs would point to Fandi or Sundram, as both have been Stange's assistants since the Japan game.

But how does one decide between two of Singapore's most popular football icons? Hence, Stange was perhaps the easy choice to make.

The question now is, was he the right choice? The events of the next few months will provide the answer. Singapore need to win their three remaining matches against Japan and Syria (both at home) and Afghanistan (away) to have a good chance of making the next round and earn an automatic slot in the 2019 Asian Cup Finals.

Anything less than three wins and they will have to rely on other results to go their way, as only the top four second-ranked teams will progress.

Extending Stange's contract was a strange choice to begin with. After all, he flopped at the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, leading the defending champions to an embarrassing group-stage exit on home soil.

He is believed to have frosty relationships with several senior players.

He also had a very public spat with SEA Games coach Aide Iskandar over the handling of a wretched campaign, which also saw Singapore bow out in the first round at home.

After what we have seen on and off the field over the past week, the decision to keep Stange just seems that much stranger.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Is Strange Stange the right choice?'. Print Edition | Subscribe