Commentary

Long-term vision must be the rationale for voting decision

The LionsXII (in blue) and Pahang players in action during their Malaysia Cup quarter-final first leg match at the Darulmakmur Stadium in Kuantan on Nov 24, 2015.
The LionsXII (in blue) and Pahang players in action during their Malaysia Cup quarter-final first leg match at the Darulmakmur Stadium in Kuantan on Nov 24, 2015. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Almost seven years ago, a bunch of likeable 15-year-old Singaporean footballers played their way into the hearts of the nation as they won bronze at the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

A year later, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its Malaysian counterpart to send their developmental squads to play in each other's domestic leagues - a decision that created the LionsXII.

Half a decade on, the sport is licking its wounds. The YOG players, with stories of indiscipline, did not develop as initially hoped, while the LionsXII experiment cannibalised the perennially struggling S-League for fans and sponsorship.

Decisions made some time ago, consequences faced today.

Come April 29, FAS' 44 affiliates will head to the polls for the very first time. Two slates, led by FAS provisional council president Lim Kia Tong and Hougang United chairman Bill Ng, will face off.

The upcoming election has empowered frustrated affiliates with the ability to effect change, but they must choose the new gatekeepers wisely.

Each voter will have to pick one side they believe will elevate Singapore football to a high level.

But as those earlier examples showed, it will take years for the full effect of a decision to be seen.

As an S-League club official said: "This is a process that will take time. If you concentrate on developing six- to eight-year-olds now, it will be eight to 10 years before you can have a decent national team."

Get it wrong and chances are, an entire generation of players, not to mention effort, will be wasted.

The election has come at an opportune time. Fans are frustrated by the national team's failure in November's Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup, where Singapore tumbled out of the group stage without a single win.

Arguably, the Lions suffered as most of them had been playing in a weakened S-League.

With the country's best young players mostly taken up by the National Football Academy, the Young Lions and, for four seasons, the LionsXII, it created a bubble where these players did not face competition for their places.

The result? From 2014 to 2016, Singapore's youth teams from the Under-14s to U-23s suffered a staggering record of 39 defeats and 10 wins in 62 games.

The S-League has also been in decline. Even Tampines Rovers' daring signing of former English Premier League player Jermaine Pennant only saw a brief surge in attendance. By the time the former Arsenal and Liverpool winger left after one campaign, he complained that even Lionel Messi would not have helped the waning competition.

The grassroots scene, comprising the amateur and lower-tiered National Football League (NFL) has been neglected as clubs are short of funding.

The upcoming election has empowered frustrated affiliates with the ability to effect change, but they must choose the new gatekeepers wisely.

Already, the Government is concerned. In January, national sports agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) decided that the FAS will no longer have direct access to the Tote Board's funding, believed to be about $25 million annually.

The FAS will need to work harder to justify football being the most heavily funded sport in the country.

Hougang's Ng, who had turned his club into a financial success thanks largely to its jackpot operation, has pledged to help the NFL teams, and has vowed to bring the Kallang Roar back.

Lim has reached out to the grassroots with plans to nurse it back to health through increased funding plus medical and insurance coverage. The FAS has also mapped out its long-term development by extending the contracts of technical director Michel Sablon and national coach V. Sundramoorthy while making former Lions captain Fandi Ahmad the head coach for youth.

Further down the pyramid, it is also working closely with SportSG's ActiveSG football academy, aligning its youth programmes with the aim of a nationwide movement to produce a steady pipeline of football talent.

Ironically, the grassroots NFL clubs, with the majority of the electoral votes, now have the power to shape Singapore football's future.

It is still too early to tell how they will vote to determine the future.

But get it wrong, and football development will suffer and it will take years to get it fixed. Can the voters wait another four years for the end of the new regime's term?

The game has been suffering and crying out for a change. When the polls were called yesterday morning, gasps were raised when a big-name candidate was named while there was much chatter on social media.

Singapore football is awakening. And the future is in the hands of those 44 voters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Long-term vision must be the rationale for voting decision'. Print Edition | Subscribe