Commentary

Time to end the Young Lions project

There is still a mathematical chance that the Singapore Under-22 football team will qualify for the SEA Games semi-finals.

Even after two opening defeats, 0-2 to Myanmar and 1-2 to Malaysia, Richard Tardy's men can still beat Laos and Brunei, and hope results elsewhere work in their favour. It is a long shot.

But rather than wait for a miracle that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has no control over, there is something it can do: Overhaul the country's youth football system, starting with the scrapping of the Young Lions project in the S-League.

As events in Kuala Lumpur and the poor results suffered by Singapore's various age-group teams have shown, the country's talent pipeline is malfunctioning.

Of the squad of 20 at the Games, 15 are from the Garena Young Lions - the FAS' developmental side who play in the S-League. Only Hanafi Akbar (Balestier Khalsa), Lionel Tan (Hougang United) and the Home United trio of Adam Swandi, Irfan Fandi and Amiruldin Asraf Nodin ply their trade elsewhere.

Few are surprised that the Young Lions are struggling. After all, they are propping up the S-League table. Of their 13 games, they have just three draws, no wins, six goals scored and 33 conceded.

 

At last month's Asian Football Confederation U-23 Championship qualifiers, Tardy's men lost 0-2 to Myanmar and were hammered 0-7 by Australia before a consolation 4-1 win over Brunei.

It is now time to rethink and disband the Young Lions as an S-League club and rebuild the nation's youth development pipeline.

Let the clubs fulfil their purpose by doing the scouting, unearthing and polishing the gems.

The SEA Games tournament was revised in 2001, making it an U-23 (now U-22) competition to give the youngsters a chance to shine, with the senior internationals playing in the biennial Asean Football Federation (AFF) Cup.

That gave birth to the Young Lions as the FAS felt that it would be beneficial to corral the best fledglings and give them regular game time together. Yet, since the team's founding in 2002, they have brought back just three SEA Games bronzes (2007, 2009, 2013).

The missteps in youth development have not just taken place at the U-22 level but also further down.

This could have been the year for the boys from the 2010 Youth Olympic Games to make their mark. Seven years ago, they played football with a swagger as they won a bronze medal. Great things were expected of this cohort but through a combination of changes in coaches and disciplinary issues - all under the nose of the FAS - only four have made Tardy's squad: Hanafi, Illyas Lee, Muhaimin Suhaimi and Ammirul Emmran.

There have been rumblings from local clubs that there is no incentive for them to develop talent when the best get taken away by the FAS.

With Tardy selecting most of his team from the Young Lions, it does suggest that the FAS is tapping only into one main source.

Perhaps, it is now time to rethink and disband the Young Lions as an S-League club and rebuild the nation's youth development pipeline. Let the clubs fulfil their purpose by doing the scouting, unearthing and polishing the gems.

The FAS could stipulate that S-League clubs field more youngsters - just like the Chinese Super League, which has curbed its clubs' over-reliance on big-money signings by ruling that each club must start their league match with at least one U-23 player.

Last month, the Cubs lost 0-2 to Laos in the AFF U-15 Championship. A decade earlier, the Lions had trounced the senior Laotians 11-0.

The weaknesses are there for all to see and the time to act is now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Time to end the Young Lions project'. Print Edition | Subscribe