SINGAPORE - An age restriction rule tweak has given him more options, but national Under-22 football coach Fandi Ahmad stressed his priority is to develop the current crop under him as they attempt to win Singapore’s first SEA Games gold.
The football tournament became exclusively an U-23 event in 2001 and this was lowered to U-22 for the 2017 edition in Kuala Lumpur.
But this year’s host, the Philippines, has adjusted the criteria to allow the 11 countries to include two overaged players for the Nov 30-Dec 11 Games.
This directive was recently communicated to the Football Association of Singapore through the Singapore National Olympic Council.
While Fandi could draft senior Lions like national captain Hariss Harun (age 28), forward Faris Ramli (26) or veteran goalkeeper Hassan Sunny (35), he said that with more than seven months to go, he has yet to decide which, if any, areas need strengthening.
“Very importantly, we need players who can understand the way we want to play, how we defend and attack,” said Fandi, 56.
“Everything is still open, and we don’t really see an area that is weakest or strongest (in the U-22 team) at this point.”
His immediate focus, he added, was to raise the levels of his Young Lions team, who beat Hougang United last Sunday for their first win of this season’s Singapore Premier League.
Last month, Fandi’s U-22 charges also participated in the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers and produced some encouraging performances. They beat Mongolia and drew with North Korea and Hong Kong to finish second in their group, although it was not enough to secure qualification for next year’s finals in Thailand.
Over 29 editions of the biennial SEA Games, the Republic’s best showing in football are three silvers in 1983, 1985 and 1989 – all of which Fandi featured as chief goal-getter.
Regarding the new overage rule, Fandi also cautioned against over-emphasising its importance.
Not only could the organisers decide to scrap it at the last minute, he might also not get the players he wants, citing past scenarios involving the Asian Games.
Its football tournament switched to an U-23 category in 2002 – with teams allowed three overaged players – but, like the SEA Games, both competitions are not sanctioned by world governing body Fifa.
This means it is not compulsory for professional clubs to release their players for the Games.
At the 2014 Incheon Asiad, then Singapore coach Aide Iskandar took senior players Hassan, Baihakki Khaizan and Afiq Yunos to South Korea.
Afiq was a third-choice pick after key midfielders Hariss and Shahdan Sulaiman were not released by their clubs.
The presence of seasoned pros among young players can be a boost, noted national midfielder M. Anumanthan, who was an U-23 player in Incheon.
The 24-year-old said: “They (Hassan and Baihakki) brought maturity and stability to the team.
"They used their knowledge and experience to teach us how to deal with moments of pressure and uncertainty.”