Football: FAS unveils youth development plans to revive ailing local scene

(From left) The Football Association of Singapore's vice-president Edwin Tong, president Lim Kia Tong, deputy president Bernard Tan and vice-president S. Thavaneson at the association's annual congress on Thursday (Nov 16).
(From left) The Football Association of Singapore's vice-president Edwin Tong, president Lim Kia Tong, deputy president Bernard Tan and vice-president S. Thavaneson at the association's annual congress on Thursday (Nov 16).ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Thursday (Nov 16) announced comprehensive changes to the local youth development set-up in a bid to rejuvenate the floundering national team from the ground up.

The proposed changes extend from the primary school level to the professional S-League, and include efforts to get more schools to take up the sport as a co-curricular activity (CCA), differentiation across age groups, and mandating a quota of Under-23 players for the S-League's six local clubs.

Speaking at the association's annual congress, FAS deputy president Bernard Tan pointed to the longstanding problem of an ageing national squad and the S-League as the driving force behind the thrust to widen the player base and increase opportunities to play football here.

The average age of the national squad that lost 0-3 to Bahrain in an Asian Cup qualifier on Tuesday was 27 years, for example.

"There are just not enough students playing the game across all age levels," said Tan. "We have about 3,000 now and the goal is to increase this number by 10,000 by 2022."

Only 74 primary schools - less than half of Singapore's 182 primary schools - offer football as a CCA, and the number is not much higher for secondary schools, where it is 84 out of the 154 schools here.

The FAS is setting up a dedicated section to engage schools, with the goal of getting 10 new primary schools and five new secondary schools a year to play football.

Said Tan: "We have to make a case for schools to choose football, to make the support we offer to schools hard to say no to."

The FAS plans to offer specialised training for physical education teachers, and to provide schools with equipment for training such as balls, goalposts and markers.

There will also be a new competition format for primary schools - five-a-side for the Under-10s and eight-a-side for the Under-12s, with the usual 11-a-side beginning only at secondary level.

"11-a-side is not right at the age where we're trying to inculcate in players the basic movements. It's more important to develop as an individual at this age," said Tan.

Currently, the Singapore Sports School is the only secondary school dedicated to producing national team players, and that is likely to change too, with the FAS looking to establish an elite group of 15 schools by 2020, known as School Football Academies.

Tan said the plan is for these 15 schools to play in a competitive league organised by the FAS, and not in the regular MOE (Ministry of Education) schools tournament, although the option of fielding a 'B' team in the schools competition would remain.

"You want like teams to play like teams. You don't want a team like Hong Kah winning 12-0, both sides don't learn. The winning side gets complacent and the losing side gets demoralised," he said.

The talent from the revamped schools set-up is to be given a dedicated stage in the S-League. Beginning with the 2018 season, it will be compulsory for the league's six local clubs (excluding the Young Lions) to have at least six Under-23 players on their books. At least three of these players will have to feature in the starting 11 of every match.

The foreign player quota is expected to be reduced to two players per team as well.

To give clubs time to fill out their squads, the S-League, which usually begins in February, will begin in late March at the earliest.

Balestier Khalsa chairman and FAS vice-president S. Thavaneson acknowledged that the quality and entertainment value of S-League games could suffer in the short term, but emphasised that these were necessary growing pains.

"I am totally confident that the changes we are proposing now will result in a stronger football ecosystem and a stronger national team. We could see improvement within three years," he said. "The S-League must always be seen as a means to an end, and that end is having a strong national team."