Football: Michel Sablon lays the path for Lions to come

FAS technical director prizes youth players' development over competition results

When he was coaching the Belgium Under-21 football team from 1983 to 1985, Michel Sablon felt that the country's military conscription, which ended only in 1994, might rob his team of precious training time.

So armed with nothing but his plans, he pestered a friend in the air force to set up a meeting with the Belgian Armed Forces' Chief of Defence.

A 90-minute lunch later, Sablon emerged with the general's approval to house the team in the same block, train on the base's pristine pitch and compete in international military competitions like the Kentish Cup.

Now the Football Association of Singapore's technical director, he told The Sunday Times: "When I said I was going to meet the general, people laughed at me. They said I had zero chance. But I got every thing when I came out.

"Military people are proud, so anything you can give to make them prouder, they are very interested.

FAS technical director Michel Sablon joining the children in their drills during the launch of the FAS Cubs Programme, at Jalan Besar Stadium. The programme was developed by the Belgian. THE NEW PAPER FILE PHOTOS


It's our duty to convince parents that you can combine studies with football. Our programme aims to make better players and persons.

MICHEL SABLON, FAS technical director, on the Cubs Programme's holistic thrust.

  • Michel Sablon's CV


    • Uefa Pro Diploma Coaching Licence

    • Diploma of Training Master, Royal Belgium Football Federation (RBFF)

    • Diploma of Monitor, RBFF

    • Diploma of Initiator, RBFF


    • 2007: Tournament director, Uefa Final Tournament U-17

    • 2001-2011: Technical director, Royal Belgian Football Association

    • 1996-2000: Director, Uefa Euro 2000 (Belgium/Holland)

    • 1985-1995: National assistant coach, Belgium

    • 1983-1985: Head coach of national Under-21 and Olympic team, Belgium

    • 1980-1983: National coach of Under-14, U-15, U-16 and U-18 teams, Belgium

"I told him we will win titles and he said, 'Let's go for it.' We won the Kentish Cup and everyone was happy.

"Life is tough but you just have to find solutions."

It is this "can-do" approach that has Sablon convinced his 11-point youth development plan for Singapore, unveiled last Monday after taking more than a year to plan, will eventually produce the fast-paced, offensive football it promises - even in the event that he departs when his two-year contract expires next April.

Knocking the table as he spoke for emphasis, he said: "I am 100 per cent sure (the plan will succeed) if we have the cooperation of all stakeholders. Every project should have a legacy.

"If it's necessary for me to stay (longer than two years), we will discuss it. But I am sure the system will carry on after I go.

"Otherwise I would not (have decided to) come to Singapore."

A key component of Sablon's blueprint involves implementing the 4-3-3 tactic across all youth teams.

But he clarified that this does not mean the national team, under caretaker coach V. Sundramoorthy, are prisoners of the system.

Tactics, he noted, are evolving constantly. After all, at the 2010 World Cup, it was the 4-2-3-1 shape that was in vogue.

"The (4-3-3) is purely for development purposes. We found that it was helpful in teaching players different roles on a football pitch, and how to transition from having the ball, to losing it and winning it back. It is the best way to learn," Sablon explained.

"(At youth level) I'm not interested in games. I'm interested in training and the development of players individually."

The former Belgium FA technical director gave an example to illustrate how development of players always takes priority.

One principle he advocates is promoting talented youngsters to older age groups to accelerate their development.

This belief was tested in 2007 when Belgium hosted the European Under-17 Championship. Sablon refused to call up the U-17 players who were already playing in the older teams to beef up the team.

"I was criticised by my own people. They said I was weakening the U-17 team," recalled Sablon.

"But the development of the players was more important than the result. Even if we fielded our best players and won, so what?

"The only team judged by results is the national team. That's most important."

Just six years later, the Belgium senior team broke into the top five of Fifa's world rankings. The Red Devils are currently ranked second behind Argentina.

While his plan appears sound, Sablon admitted it will not succeed without "continuous control and implementation".

Hence, surprise visits - to club and national youth teams - by members of his department, including national youth teams head coach Richard Tardy, are par for the course these days.

Once, Sablon was livid when he caught a youth coach cancelling training when the lightning warning system came on.

He pointed to how another coach, in a similar situation, took the team indoors to do physical training and stretching, as a positive example.

"I cannot tell you what I said (to him), but I was not satisfied. Cancelling training is the last (resort). We don't want that. The boys are there, do something with them," said the straight-talking Belgian.

He also admitted that the lack of Chinese players in the national set-up is an issue. In the squad Sundramoorthy named for the ongoing AYA Bank Cup, Gabriel Quak was the only Chinese player called up to the national senior team.

With the Chinese making up 74.3 per cent of the population last year, having the bulk of the population not keen to play the sport at the elite level results in a limited talent pool for the national team.

A lack of prospects is an oft-cited reason for players falling out of the game, but Sablon said the situation is improving with more Chinese players coming for selection.

He said: "It's our duty to convince parents that you can combine studies with football. Our programme aims to make better players and persons. I believe you need a healthy body and a healthy mind."

Even though he holds the Uefa Pro Diploma Coaching Licence, the highest coaching qualification in Europe, Sablon said coaching is far from his mind.

He said: "I found that my passion was increasingly focused on the improvement of youth football... to realise the improvement and progression of young players gives me much more satisfaction and pleasure both professionally and personally."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Laying the path for Lions to come'. Print Edition | Subscribe