Young Lions' early exit: A football dream that imploded

Internal strife, poor tactical choices a factor in team's group-stage exit

THERE was none of the usual slamming of the inept coach that one would normally see in the aftermath of a disastrous football campaign. Neither was there much of the blame game among players which one would expect to see the morning after a debacle that saw Singapore's SEA Games football hopes end in the group stage.

Instead, in the aftermath of the team's surprise exit and the shock resignation of national Under-23 coach Aide Iskandar on Thursday night, fingers point to an implosion from within the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), caused by infighting among coaching staff and a lack of clarity on key objectives.

While player injuries and wrong tactics ultimately contributed to the team's failure, it was problems from within, or as Aide hinted on Thursday, "a lot of challenges", that precipitated the Young Lions' demise.

Players and backroom staff The Straits Times spoke to talked about how the constant changing of coaches created an unsettling atmosphere within the side.

The bulk of the players had trained under fitness coach Aleksandar Bozenko in the build-up to the Games last year, only to face a new trainer late last year in Juergen Raab.

The replacement was then replaced when former national player Kadir Yahaya was roped in to help get the team fighting fit just months before the Games.

Said a senior player who declined to be named: "We found it puzzling that although a bronze medal (at the 2013 Games) was won with one trainer and we were working well with him, another was brought in.

"Then, yet another came in."

Sources said that Aide had preferred Bozenko but was forced to work with Raab.

The coaching merry-go-round continued right up to one month before the Games when goalkeeper coach John Burridge, who had worked with the goalkeepers in the build-up to the tournament, did not actually feature when the Games started.

Insiders in the team said that the Englishman had asked to be excused to work with the senior squad for the World Cup qualifiers, forcing the SEA Games outfit to scramble for a last-minute replacement.

Added a source close to the team: "It was strange that a coach could be allowed to leave so soon before a tournament. Perhaps what could have been made clear was which tournament was the main priority."

The blurred lines also meant players were not clear about what their key objectives were for the year - the SEA Games team or the LionsXII.

Despite the FAS publicly announcing that the SEA Games had top priority, key attackers Sahil Suhaimi and Faris Ramli were released for LionsXII duty in the build-up to the Games, dealing a blow to Aide's final preparations.

Both Sahil and Faris scored in the Malaysian FA Cup win, but failed to show such form during the SEA Games.

"The SEA Games team should have taken top priority as we believe the talent, if harnessed properly, was there to get the gold," said a Young Lions official.

"The FA Cup win was good for Singapore football but certain players came back to us with inflated egos, which made them harder to coach."

The lack of clarity also surfaced just before the tournament, when attacker Iqbal Hussain was dropped on the eve of the event for disciplinary reasons, only to be called up by national team coach Bernd Stange for the World Cup qualifiers.

The move infuriated the Young Lions squad, who felt the German was undermining Aide and creating unnecessary drama at a crucial time. The reserve players on the SEA Games team were also unsettled, wondering if perhaps it would have been better for them to have been excluded from Aide's team so they could also feature in the senior side.

Said an insider: "The team lost the bench after that. Players weren't convinced that being in the SEA Games squad was the best move for them."

The off-field problems, in turn, led to problems on it.

Whether he was fickle or forced to do so because of injuries, Aide switched between route-one football and short but not always decisive passing - often in the same match.

"We were playing long balls to a 1.7m striker (Sahil) - Aide always had a game plan but sometimes, it didn't make sense," said a player who declined to be named.

Another added: "When we did have a big guy (1.87m-tall Irfan Fandi) up front, the crosses were not in sync with his runs."

Despite overseas trips to Turkey, Austria and Japan and their public avowal of overall unity, there were divisions within the squad. Since coming together two years ago, tensions have existed between the "veterans" with international caps and the younger players.

"Some senior guys knew they were undroppable so they didn't bother to train hard, eat well or follow the rules," said one player.

The team did not have luck with injuries either. Key midfielder Shahfiq Ghani, instrumental in the build-up to the Games as the team beat Laos 5-1 and Timor Leste 2-0, missed the whole tournament with injury. For Thursday's must-win against Indonesia, Faris and striker Irfan were only half-fit.

But as Aide continues to bear the brunt of criticism from a disappointed public dreaming of an elusive football gold, defender Amirul Adli best summed up the team's feelings.

He said: "Why blame the coach? He had his own issues to deal with behind the scenes.

"The players just didn't perform to their standards."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg

drajac@sph.com.sg

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