SINGAPORE - The Singapore Under-23 football team face a race against time to earn their berth for the Aug 18-Sept 2 Asian Games in Indonesia.
On Wednesday (May 30), the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) released a list of 246 athletes from 22 sports who had made the cut for the Asiad, with the U-23s conspicuous by their absence.
SNOC secretary-general Chris Chan stressed on Thursday that the football team must present a fresh result before the appeal deadline on June 15, or they might miss the competition altogether.
Football at the Asian Games features Under-23 players, with the option of up to three overaged players.
The Republic's football team have competed at three straight Asian Games - 2006, 2010 and 2014 - but exited at the group stage each time. Previous performances did not have a bearing on football's omission, said Chan.
"We don't look back at past results or records, we only look at what is presented to us," he told The Straits Times. "We understand there is a new team, and there is a drive to bring up football.
"There was a lot of discussion but, if you don't beat the sixth-placing mark... At the moment, the team is not going."
The SNOC requires athletes and teams to meet a sixth-place qualifying benchmark.
This means they either have to be ranked ahead of a sixth-placed athlete in their event at the previous Asian Games, or beat an athlete or team that finished in the top six of the previous Asiad within a 13-month window before the 2018 Games.
In 2014, the footballers faced a similar last-minute scramble to secure their ticket for the Asiad.
Then, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) managed to arrange a match against Gulf Cup Under-23 champions Bahrain in Manama, which the Republic won 3-2.
ST understands the FAS reached out to the football associations of 2014 gold medallists South Korea, semi-finalists Thailand and Iraq, and quarter-finalists the United Arab Emirates, but were not able to lock down a date for a friendly.
The FAS also contacted the Vietnam Football Federation - its U-23 side finished runners-up at the AFC U-23 Championships in China in January - and most recently Oman, but talks also fell through.
Instead, the U-23s played against Indonesia in March and lost 3-0. Indonesia were eliminated at the last-16 stage of the 2014 Asian Games, knocked out by silver medallists North Korea.
The Singapore U-23s also played in the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy in April, when they beat Laos but lost to Cambodia and Timor Leste. At last year's SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, they beat Brunei and Laos but lost to Malaysia and Myanmar.
In all these instances, the squad that played did not feature any player over the age of 23.
FAS' head of national teams management Eric Ong said: "We reached out to a number of associations to arrange friendlies against U-23 teams that fit into SNOC's criteria, but many of these teams came back to us and said they were unable to play outside of the Fifa windows for international matches. We will continue to engage various associations to see if there is any possibility for a game in the next few weeks."
There has been only one Fifa window for international matches in 2018 so far, when Singapore played Indonesia in March. The next window is Sept 3-11.
Singapore U-23 head coach Fandi Ahmad, who was appointed in December, is still hopeful that his boys will get the nod from the SNOC.
"The boys have really put their heart and soul into training and games from the first day I have worked with them," said Fandi.
"Even though we have not managed to get the best results, they have shown tenacity and discipline.
"The Asian Games would be very beneficial to them in terms of exposure."
Meanwhile, the Singapore Table Tennis Association will not appeal against the SNOC's decision not to send the men's team for the Asian Games.
At the 2014 Asiad, the men's team were knocked out in the quarter-finals by silver medallists South Korea, while the men's doubles team of Gao Ning and Li Hu won bronze after losing to silver medallists Xu Xin and Fan Zhendong of China.
In singles competition, Gao was eliminated by Xu in the singles quarter-finals, while Li was beaten by Fan in the third round.
STTA senior high performance manager Eddy Tay said: "We are disappointed that our men's team failed to qualify for the Asian Games. Our men are going through a period of rejuvenation and our younger generation of players will need more time to step up and fill the senior players' shoes.
"Nonetheless, Gao Ning will still be playing in the singles and mixed doubles events."