Football: Lions coach Yoshida, captain Hariss welcome possible reduction in SPL Under-23 rule

Under-23 players Saifullah Akbar (far left) and Nur Adam Abdullah (front, in green vest) at the Lions' training at Jalan Besar on Aug 31, 2021. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - National football coach Tatsuma Yoshida and Lions skipper Hariss Harun have welcomed a possible move to reduce the Under-23 quota for local senior Singapore Premier League (SPL) clubs next season.

The Straits Times understands that if the amendment is approved, clubs will be required to start just one player aged 23 or younger, instead of the current three. The rule was introduced in 2018 to develop more young local players but has received mixed reactions .

After a training session at Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday (Aug 31) morning, Yoshida said: "That would be good news because senior players will get more playing time.

"The rule is not good for the growth of the national team because the U-23 players will have to play even if they are not good enough, and senior players lose the opportunity to play more.

"What will happen when these players turn 24, get dropped and the cycle repeats? So, I hope we can change this."

Even though the U-23 rule has led to the emergence of youngsters like Hougang United attacker Farhan Zulkifli and Tampines Rovers defender Irfan Najeeb, Yoshida's latest call-up roster is a reflection the scheme has not been very effective.

Other than defender Jacob Mahler and forward Ilhan Fandi from the Young Lions - the de facto national Under-22s - the only U-23 players in the squad are Lion City Sailors left-back Nur Adam Abdullah and midfielder Saifullah Akbar.

Meanwhile, 27 players were called up for the national Under-22s centralised training with Nazri Nasir and Philippe Aw to prepare for the Asian Football Confederation U23 Asian Cup qualifiers against Timor-Leste, South Korea, the Philippines next month.

Hariss pointed that with the six senior local SPL clubs being allowed to sign four foreign players, the U-23 regulation means up to 24 senior players - and potentially just 18 outfielders - can play the full 90 minutes per game week.

The 30-year-old added: "This is not good enough for the national team. International football is another level and it is important for players to have enough playing time week-in, week-out on merit.

"Hopefully, as we move on from the pandemic, the reserve and youth leagues can resume and more young players can have more playing time to get ready for the SPL. It would be good if we can have more local clubs in the league too.

"Then, we can build our talent pool more organically, like how players like Shahdan Sulaiman came through the ranks at Tampines Rovers and Home United where he learnt from training with the likes of Rafi Ali and Peres de Oliveira and becoming the top midfielder and national player he is."

Like most Asian teams, the Lions are not involved in matches during this international window due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, but Yoshida is hopeful of having at least a game at the next break in November.

He wants the ongoing four-day centralised training to be a "refresher course" to remind his players of the playing concepts that seemed to have been lost during a poor second half of their World Cup qualifying campaign after a bright start to his tenure.

The Japanese, 47, said: "I wanted to play, but some things are out of our control during this pandemic. We need to be born again because we didn't do well (for the qualifiers) in Saudi Arabia. We were soft and forgot things we trained for, and I want to see the hard work, power and energy again."

The Singapore national team in training at the Geylang Field on June 18, 2021. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

One cause for optimism for Yoshida has been the form of forwards Gabriel Quak and Amy Recha, with nine and 10 goals respectively in the SPL.

He said: "We don't always have many (prolific scorers), but it is getting better. It's good that they are scoring quite a lot and we always welcome new talents."

Hariss praised Geylang International's Amy, enjoying a breakthrough season at the age of 29, and added: "I'm also pleasantly surprised with how Ilhan has adapted in the No. 9 position even though he is not an out-and-out striker like (his older brother) Ikhsan is.

"It's a pity we don't have a game to see how we can gel. We suffered a blip during the recent qualifiers, hopefully we will be able to have international matches soon to make amends."

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