We’re Visiting … Laos?

New national coach Bernd Stange will want his Lions – my, our Lions – to pick up their second consecutive win today in Laos. It is just a friendly, but is quite a remarkable occasion. Why?

It was a result of the Causeway Challenge being cancelled. Whatever the reason for this might have been, we were forced to arrange matches at short notice against opponents other than our traditional rivals Malaysia.

This is, in my eyes, a step forward. We cannot afford to remain mired in tradition by continuing to compare ourselves only against Malaysia, not when teams around and below us are continually improving. We may not have the clout or connections like the Indonesians do to arrange a friendly with the Netherlands (also today by the way), but the choice of opponents here is a reasonably sensible one since Laos and Myanmar are of similar calibre. It will be a useful test.

I said it, we aren’t much better than they are. This despite us winning our 4th Suzuki (formerly Tiger) Cup in 2012. And it’s not just about FIFA rankings, either, though it will come as a surprise to some that we are 10 places below Myanmar and just 3 above Laos in the ladder, firmly on page 6 of 7.

Another reason to be excited about this occasion? The squad is almost entirely Singaporean. Sure, Qiu Li was not born here. But he is, exceptionally for recent times, the sole exception. The omission of champions like John Wilkinson, Aleksandar Đuric, Shi Jiayi is a big change from the previous selection strategy.

Home-grown players like Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, and Izwan Mahbud already have a regional championship to their name. Khairul Amri, Shahril Ishak and Indra Sahdan have a few more.

New names like Shariff Samat and Adam Swandi, used as substitutes in Stange’s debut 2-0 victory against a largely-U23 Myanmar side, are a sign that Singapore football is willing to test its new blood instead of relying heavily on the foreign talent scheme which imported, among others, the legendary Đuric.

Let’s hope this trend continues, and that like the class of 1998, one day a fully local-born side can do us proud on the regional stage. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the players who chose to wear our colours, regardless of birthplace – I just think that our football fraternity is not being properly respected if we seek short-term glory by signing reinforcements from abroad.

Not only that, I hope that we are making steps towards the future by putting more thought, more effort into developing our local talent and drawing more fans back to the stands in our local competitions.

If it comes across as being a tad nationalistic, I would like to make clear that that is not my intention. But I will not apologise for it. In the long run, we cannot rely on imported impetus to grow, we have to develop our own system.

Majulah Singapura!

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