Football: S-League clubs keen to ring the changes

Albirex Niigata's Kento Nagasaki (No. 10) celebrating with his team-mates after scoring against Global Cebu during the Singapore Cup final, which they won 3-1 on penalties. The quadruple winners will be drastically changed next season as they have to
Albirex Niigata's Kento Nagasaki (No. 10) celebrating with his team-mates after scoring against Global Cebu during the Singapore Cup final, which they won 3-1 on penalties. The quadruple winners will be drastically changed next season as they have to field what will practically be an U-23 side.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Teams in agreement over U-23 quotas, feel that focus on youth a step in right direction

It's time to get down to work and all parties must pull together in the same direction for the good of local football.

That is the consensus of club officials The Straits Times spoke to, a day after the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) rolled out revamp plans for the 2018 season.

In the biggest transformation of the S-League since its inception in 1996, the FAS announced at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Monday that it will drive down the average age of players with Under-23 quotas, among a slew of changes to rejuvenate the Republic's sole professional football league.

Tampines Rovers chairman Desmond Ong said he appreciated the FAS' top brass being open to feedback from club chairmen.

"The FAS has done a good job in tough circumstances," said Ong, who took over the reins of the Stags in September.

"To their credit, they took into account the feedback from the clubs and we are appreciative of FAS' willingness to listen and help the clubs affected.

"One example was the initial plan to restrict the age of one of the two foreign imports (which was later rescinded)."

NO OTHER WAY TO REVITALISE LEAGUE

We are really in the last chance saloon (to make the S-League a success) and we have to restore the faith... The officials, coaches and players must give their best effort to implement this plan.

DESMOND ONG, Tampines Rovers chairman, feels the FAS changes represent the last throw of the dice for the S-League.

FINDING NEW TALENT

It is a fair platform for all clubs... and that will help bring some excitement to the league.

PAUL POH, Warriors FC general manager, believes the U-23 age quotas may inject fresh impetus into the league.

The lawyer added: "There had been some disagreements over the FAS' plans, but I feel it is time to start moving forward.

"We are really in the last chance saloon (to make the S-League a success) and we have to restore the faith in the fans.

"The officials, coaches and players must give their best effort to implement this plan."

The guidelines drawn up to inject youth into the S-League have drawn plenty of attention.

For example, the move to cap each of the six senior local clubs to a maximum of eight players aged 31 and over was seen by some as age discrimination.

This is despite the fact that there are 48 slots in total to accommodate the 28 players who fall into that age category next season.

In response to ST's queries, a Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) spokesman said it had been in talks with national sports agency Sport Singapore before the announcement to ensure its fair employment guidelines were adhered to.

"We note the changes were mainly about requiring the minimum number of players under the age of 23 years to rejuvenate the S-League, and not about imposing age restrictions on the players," said the Tafep spokesman.

In addition to the cap on older players, clubs must have between six and nine U-23 players in their squads, and must start matches with at least three on the pitch.

The three players must also play for a minimum of 45 minutes per match.

Warriors FC general manager Paul Poh, whose club had one of the oldest squads last season with nine players aged 30 and above, said the new rules were "fair".

"We were quite sceptical whether the focus on youth will work, but it is a fair platform for all clubs... and that will help bring some excitement to the league," he said.

"All of us (clubs) agree that 2018 is a year that we are all going to give it a good try."

Added Geylang International coach Noor Ali: "Our club embrace this youth approach and I'm excited about it.

"We have given young players such as Noor Ariff (18-year-old midfielder) and Ifwat Ismail (20-year-old striker) a chance to play last season and we will continue to do so.

"We've even signed some young players from the (amateur) National Football League.

"I believe fans will be surprised by what they see next season."

Albirex Niigata, the S-League champions in 2016 and 2017, will also not be spared.

Of their 11 most frequently used players last season, five were above the age of 23.

But next season, they will be almost an entirely U-23 side, with 38-year-old former J-League goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa the only "overaged" player.

Albirex general manager Koh Mui Tee, who revealed the club are keen to take up the option of signing two U-23 local players next season, said: "We are confident we will be competitive. Otherwise, we would not agree (to the changes)."

• Additional reporting by Wang Meng Meng and Shamir Osman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'S-League clubs keen to ring the changes'. Print Edition | Subscribe