Raising Singapore’s football standards

We had youth teams before. Not too long ago...

NFA U-16? vs Tanjong Pagar United. I don’t remember what youth tournament this was, probably the COE Challenge Cup.

So one of my Facebook friends shared this blog post on how to improve Singapore’s football standards written on June 27th 2015. I’d wanted to reply on July 1st 2015, but I clearly got distracted and left this as a draft for the longest time.

In case the writer, Darren C, still believes the same things, here are my responses: Keep the S.League; forget the ASL; and focus on the local first.

Keep the S.League

We are a geographically small country, I have to agree, and I’d add that we have far too much internal mobility for people to physically stay in Hougang, Geylang, or Tampines for any length of time.

But this is a red herring. If Japanese expats based here can get behind Albirex Niigata — and I’m willing to wager that fewer than 10% of them are from Niigata itself — then one doesn’t need to be actually in or from the region to support a given team. Closer to home, I know at least one member of the Hougang Hools who lives nowhere near Hougang, but was attending games fairly regularly.

As small as Singapore may be, there is always going to be a “too far”; just ask a person who grew up in Bedok to have supper at Al-Azhar in Bukit Timah, or a Jurong resident to meet for breakfast at Changi Jetty before a trip to Pulau Ubin. (Or anyone from Jurong to go to Pulau NTU, but I digress.) There is definitely merit in clubs establishing themselves within certain regional boundaries. But will the fans reciprocate?

At least two parties are responsible for the dying S.League: the players on the pitch and the fans in the stands. The clubs need to reach out more to the fans, through more attractive football and better interaction, and the fans need to get used to the idea of paying for entry. Just look at this photo in 2014 at Hougang Stadium I took using my pet potato. Sadly, I’m sure I’ll be able to get a better one next time I get down to any stadium.

I also agree that our clubs are stuck in a vicious cycle at the moment, with low attendances providing little incentive for sponsors to stay committed. But I cannot agree that the “budget” foreigners we have are usually of low quality. Sure, they’re not big names. But they have generally lifted the standard of the teams they have played in, as long as the Singaporeans they were with were decent enough to not make them do all the work. Last season, we saw the big hole that Nicolas Velez left behind when he transferred out of Warriors; Sirina Camara usually put in remarkable shifts for Home United; and the Croatian triangle steadied Balestier Khalsa in their AFC Cup endeavours.

This season has been mostly dominated by the arrival of Jermaine Pennant, but even that hype is dying down as Tampines, while improving, have predictably not shot every team out of the water. I’ve objected to the idea of marquee players for years now, and regardless what the Tampines chairman says, this financial load is not a sustainable one for any local club.

The current league leaders Albirex Niigata are the complete opposite of Tampines, running on a shoestring budget, with hungry young players, and an experienced coach who can rely on players who have their fundamentals right. These players need to be fostered from a young age, so clubs might do well adopting and working with schools in their immediate vicinity. Organically, please, not top-down.

Forget the ASL

This has been brewing and brewing for years, but has still not gone very far. Despite the AFC President showing some support in 2013, none of the other regional heavyweights seem too interested. And why should they be, when nothing has coalesced for so long?

Thai clubs have been regulars in the AFC Champions League of late, and just last year Malaysia’s Johor Darul Takzim won the AFC Cup. For clubs like these who have tasted continental success, there’s no sense in adding more distractions to their calendar, especially when this trophy would only mean bragging rights within one small section of the continent.

The alternative would be to siphon off top talent into another franchise team to take part in the ASL. Just as we have learned from the LionsXII’s limited success, this is a risk that has not paid off even for early adopters like Singapore, as Steve Darby points out.

Instead, we should look at how to improve our local teams so that we can finally break out of the quagmire we’re in. I would like to see the return of the match-day experience that we used to look forward to in the Malaysia Cup days at the old National Stadium, but we don’t have to have just one — or four — representative teams to do so. We can do that for all the S.League teams, starting with the eight which are regularly based in Singapore. The closest we have to that is Albirex Niigata. Other clubs would really do well to learn from their excellent work.

Let’s work on guaranteeing a steady 1,500 attendance at every S.League ground. Then gravity will do its work.

Focus on the local first

Darren also recommends flogging more of our best abroad to give them experience of competing at a higher level. I agree. We haven’t had local players move beyond the confines of ASEAN for some time now.

Some exceptions can be found at youth level, such as Adam Swandi’s development run at FC Metz and Mahathir Azeman’s time in Brazil with Boavista S.C. Somewhat below the radar was YOG alumnus Bryan Neubronner, who signed a full-time contract with SSV Ulm 1846 in 2013.

At senior level, there was the week Izwan Mahbud spent at Matsumoto Yamaga. Safuwan Baharudin’s six matches with Melbourne City FC don’t count, of course, since Australia are now in the ASEAN Football Federation 😉 Nor do the Fandis count, even if they have been to Chile and Spain, since they have only returned to our shores.

As Safuwan in Australia and Hassan Sunny with Army United in Thailand have shown, we have players who can thrive overseas. But how can we find more like them? We need our S.League clubs to ramp up their development programmes to nurture such talents.

I’d written a letter to the Straits Times forum in April 2015 about the “triple bind” S.League clubs were in. Those binds have now been loosened: the LionsXII has been disbanded and most of the then-top players are now back in the S.League, even if it might have only been because of the FAS’ guarantee that their old salaries would be maintained. The number of foreigners each club may sign has also been reduced, allowing the budget for foreign signings to hopefully be redirected to internal development. I hope this will lead to more attention on the Prime League and COE processes that allow young players to rise through the ranks.

I really like what Home United are doing with Philippe Aw as head coach, retaining the core of their team and promoting youngsters through the ranks. He is also not afraid to keep to a philosophy even though it has not really yielded results as yet. More local clubs need to think along such lines.

Yet, admittedly, Home United have deeper pockets than most clubs and can afford to build a better youth system in the first place. How long will it take for the Hougangs and Balestiers to catch up, or for the likes of Warriors to live up to their full potential?

Just like the sycamores in “Colours of the Wind”, if you chop (the S.League) down, then you’ll never know.

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