Secondary school football teams craving more matches beyond the National B and C Division football tournaments, which typically end in July, got their wish yesterday when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced that it is starting a new schools football league.
This new league, which will start next July, will be operated by the FAS and aims to have at least 15 teams in three years' time.
The ticket to this league? Just promise to play the short-passing, high-tempo and intense pressing game that the FAS is advocating.
FAS vice-president Bernard Tan said this league gives players more playing time at a high level, and it imparts the desired style of play to the youngsters.
He said: "We want to put teams who are playing (elite-level) football in a separate competition where they can actually stretch one another."
In the nationals, Tan felt matches only get competitive from the quarter-finals onwards.
SCHOOLS FOOTBALL ACADEMY LEAGUE
• Aims to have at least 15 teams in three years
• Plans to serve Under-15 and U-17 levels
• Must play a short-passing, quick and high-intensity pressing game
• Takes place each year from July to November, after the school football season
• League rankings not disclosed openly, emphasis on style of play over results
Furthermore, after the regular National B and C Division season, most teams only play friendly matches. Most of these matches do not even have assistant referees.
Eight schools have been shortlisted for the league's inaugural season, including powerhouses Singapore Sports School (SSP), Hong Kah, thrice winners of the last five B titles, and St Gabriel's, which are known for producing national players like Indra Sahdan, Hafiz Sujad and Hariss Harun.
The initiative is part of the FAS' Schools Football Academy (SFA) programme, a key pillar of its latest five-year strategic plan, unveiled in May this year by FAS technical director Michel Sablon.
The FAS will mentor the selected schools with a syllabus that is aligned with Sablon's overall development plan. While schools will retain their coaches, a goalkeeping coach from the FAS will be dispatched to assist these schools.
In turn, Sablon's team will monitor matches to ensure schools adhere to the given philosophy.
Asked if focusing on 15 of the more than 100 secondary schools with football teams represents a risky strategy, or if it was unfair to the schools which miss out, Tan replied: "We are looking to develop elite players, not looking at fairness. We want to invest in players who can play at elite level and give them a little bit more."
He said this 15-team league will provide a base of about 1,000 elite youth players, a step closer to the 4,000 which he said is the number that Asian football powerhouses Japan and Australia boast.
Which is why, Tan said, the door is not closed on teams who miss the first cut. As long as they are willing to adopt the FAS' development plan, they too will be selected.
Tan was speaking at the sidelines of a match between St Patrick's School and SSP. The two schools, along with St Gabriel's and Hong Kah, are the first four schools in the SFA. They are currently competing against S-League clubs' Centre Of Excellence teams in an Under-15 league.
While FAS officials track the results, the league rankings are not made known to the teams.
This, according to FAS general manager (youth development) S. Varatha Rajan, is to dissuade coaches from focusing on results but instead, concentrate on instilling the slick high-tempo style.
At yesterday's game, St Patrick's boasted a midfielder who was at least two heads taller than his peers. But he played in midfield, and, apart from set pieces, there were no high balls lofted in his direction. Instead, both teams tried to keep the ball on the ground.
Irfan Ismail, teacher-in-charge of football at St Patrick's School, welcomed the initiative.
The 39-year-old said: "The quality is high, the style of football is also different with teams playing out from the back, and it forces us to prepare differently."