Commentary

Unknown ASL hardly the answer to local football's problems

The Asean Super League (ASL) is being hailed as the next big thing for Singapore football. Yet the local fraternity is not entirely convinced. I don't blame them.

If the rhetoric surrounding the ASL, a regional league set to kick off in 2017 involving clubs from Asean, is to be believed, it could potentially solve many of the Football Association of Singapore's problems. It will allow the best local players to play at a higher level; it will bring the fans back; it will improve the national team, who have failed to deliver of late.

Yet how strong will the ASL be? Will it feature the best players from South-east Asia? Will there be foreign players? Are the teams going to be funded adequately such that they can entice the best players, at least from the region? With the league a year away from kick-off, the ASL is an unknown entity.

One thing is certain though - the birth of the ASL could mean another nail in the coffin of the ailing S-League. Any thoughts of a revival in its fortunes - with the return of the country's best players following the disbandment of the LionsXII - will be gone next season. That is when the league is set for a talent drain and will be relegated to being a feeder league.

The FAS needs to see the real problem, which is that there are simply not enough local footballers playing in a competitive environment, at a high enough level of skill and intensity. Without this critical mass, there will never be a good enough national team.

The FAS defends the ASL model by pointing to world No. 1 Belgium, whose best footballers play abroad instead of in the domestic Jupiler Pro League (JPL).

But that in itself is a flawed comparison. The best Belgian players are not playing for a team run by the Belgian FA, in an artificially created regional league that essentially eats out of the same pie as the JPL. The play abroad, and are not fighting for the same eyeballs and relegating the national league to a sideshow.

The FAS also said the ASL is a stepping stone for local footballers to move to stronger foreign leagues, as making the jump from the S-League is a step too far.

While that may be true, it would only be fair to note that S-League players have managed to turn the heads of international suitors too.

From its early years with World Cup stars like Iranian Mohammad Khakpour, who played in Turkey, S-League players have moved on to greener pastures, such as Britain (Grant Holt, Daniel Bennett), Denmark (Issey Nakajima-Farran), Thailand (Hassan Sunny) and Indonesia (Noh Alam Shah, Shahril Ishak).

And as Home United's chief executive Azrulnizam Shah Sohaimi pointed out, there are already pathways for S-League players to play at a high level, such as the AFC Champions League or the AFC Cup. So why create an artificial platform?

The FAS needs to see the real problem, which is that there are simply not enough local footballers playing in a competitive environment, at a high enough level of skill and intensity.

Without this critical mass, there will never be a good enough national team.

A stumbling block to forming this talent base is that few people see football as a viable career. Parents do not want their children to play football for a livelihood because the prospects are dim.

Can the ASL allay these fears? Probably not. Not when the measure of success is making that one elite team of say 25 players. On the flip side, if the S-League can provide an avenue for seven, maybe eight teams of 25 and assure them viable careers with decent salary (Singapore skipper Hariss Harun reportedly earns about $40,000 a month playing in Malaysia), the odds suddenly improve tremendously.

Without numbers, even the grandest youth development plans will disintegrate.

Keeping the best players in one team could also lead to complacency among the ranks, with them safe in the knowledge that there is little chance their counterparts in the S-League - exposed to lower competition standards - can catch up.

Here's an alternative. Why not allow the S-League clubs to compete for players with the ASL franchise. Unlike how the LionsXII, who played in the Malaysia Super League were run, clubs must be free to try and retain the players if they can, and be given the financial backing to do it. That way, you create a model where the fittest survive, instead of S-League clubs having to bow to a higher entity.

As the example of the LionsXII will show, there is also no guarantee that playing in a foreign league will benefit the national team. When the LionsXII project ended, the ranking of the national team actually fell four places in the Fifa rankings.

Last year, the Lions surrendered their Asean Football Federation championship title meekly, bowing out in the group stage. A similar fate was dealt to the SEA Games team in June this year.

The first step to solving any problem is recognising that there is one. And while it is clear the FAS seems intent on providing solutions, the question is, does it see the true problem?

The fraternity isn't convinced and frankly neither am I.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Unknown ASL hardly the answer to local football's problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe