Singapore football has endured a torrid 2017. The national teams at all levels have been dogged by poor results while at club level, Japanese side Albirex Niigata are on the verge of repeating their sweep of all four domestic titles.
In a bid to revive a sport in tatters, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) yesterday unveiled plans that will see local football, from the professional S-League to academies and even schools, turn its attention to youth.
The proposed changes are built on three pillars - widening the base of players, improving the quality of coaching and increasing opportunities for young aspirants to play.
The plans will see the FAS move to encourage more schools to offer football as a co-curricular activity (CCA), roping in private and public academies to run development centres across the country, while also creating more opportunities for young players to take part in competitive matches.
The youth focus will also run through the S-League, with the six local sides having to sign a minimum of six players aged below 23 in their 20-man squad. Three of the Under-23 players have to be fielded in the starting line-up in every match.
"There are just not enough students playing the game across all age levels. We have about 3,000 now and the goal is to increase this number by 10,000 by 2022," said FAS deputy president Bernard Tan at the 35th Annual Congress at the Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre yesterday.
Only 74 of the 182 primary schools in Singapore offer football as a CCA, and the number is not much higher for secondary schools, with the sport featuring in only 84 of 154 schools.
YOUTH DEVELOPMENT PIPELINE
•FAS to set up dedicated department to engage schools.
•Target is to increase number of active schools players from 3,000 now to 13,000 in 2022.
•New category of Development Centres following FAS guidelines encompassing existing Junior Centres of Excellence, ActiveSG academies and private academies.
REVAMPED SCHOOLS COMPETITION FORMAT
•Five-a-side for Under-10s, eight-a-side for U-12s.
•Group of 15 secondary schools hived off from main Ministry of Education competition to form elite developmental league at U-14, U-17, U-18 levels.
•Minimum of six U-23 players for teams, excluding Albirex, Brunei DPMM and Young Lions.
•Each team must start three U-23 players every match.
•Foreign player quota reduced from four to two.
•Reintroduce Beep test for player fitness.
•2018 season to be delayed from February to late March at earliest for clubs to adjust to new rules.
The FAS is setting up a dedicated department to engage schools, with a five-year goal of getting 10 new primary schools and five new secondary schools a year to include football as a CCA.
"We have to make a case for schools to choose football, to make it hard for schools to say 'no' to the support we offer," said Tan, who revealed that the FAS will offer specialised training for physical education teachers and provide schools with equipment for training such as balls, goalposts and markers.
Currently, the Singapore Sports School is the only secondary school dedicated to producing national team players and that will change.
The FAS is looking to establish an elite group of 15 schools by 2020 known as School Football Academies. Besides the Sports School, four other schools - St Gabriel's Secondary School, Hong Kah Secondary School, St Patrick's School and Seng Kang Secondary School - have committed to the cause.
Tan said the plan is for these 15 schools to play in a competitive league organised by the FAS, and not in the national schools tournament, although the option of fielding a 'B' team in the schools competition is open.
The FAS will also extend its proposed pipeline to the S-League, in a bid to develop more players for the national team. The number of foreign players will also be reduced from four (three senior and one Under-21) to two next year.
FAS vice-president S. Thavaneson acknowledged that the quality and entertainment value of S-League games could well suffer in the short term, but he believed that these moves are necessary for the future of the sport.
"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."
FAS president Lim Kia Tong called for patience, saying: "Results have not been ideal, and we acknowledge that. We know that work has to be done and we have installed a system that will help Singapore football in the future.
"We may not see results immediately... and we ask for your patience. We hope that our changes will be a change upward."