It is the sport that grips Singapore but Football Association of Singapore (FAS) vice-president Bernard Tan was shocked to find how few schoolchildren get to play football regularly.
An FAS survey of primary school pupils earlier this year found that nearly one in two children want to play. But only 5.9 per cent of boys and 1.6 per cent of girls actually do.
He wants this to change so Singapore can enlarge its pool of players and raise future football stars.
"Kids' football has taken a step backwards," he told The Sunday Times. "In the past, students played football during recess. They would use bags or shoes as goalposts or they would play at basketball courts.
Kids around the world will use every opportunity to play. It is this informality that allows players to develop."
Since his appointment as an FAS vice-president in September last year, the father of three sons has focused on youth development.
The FAS survey was done in 100 of the 187 primary schools here. With about 40,000 children in every cohort, the results mean only about 2,400 boys play football in school regularly.
Mr Tan was heartened to see that more than 45 per cent of those polled want to play football. While it will be hard to get that many playing, he has set an immediate target to raise the boys' participation rate to 15 per cent, or 6,000 players.
He also thinks primary schools spend too little time on the game, with a football season of just three months. He believes the youngsters should get about 35 to 40 weeks of training, at 21/2 hours weekly, to keep in shape.
"But this can be stressful for the teachers," he acknowledged. "It is a challenge to get a framework. Unless the children play consistently, it is meaningless."
Making regular participation a priority, he wants to start a pilot scheme next year in north zone primary schools. An official announcement will be made later, but he let on: "The kids will get to play for a longer season.
They will play in a structured way and they will be coached right. We want to produce good women's teams, too.
"We will work out a format so schools will not be stressed by it."
Mr Tan said private vendors will train the children under the National Football Syllabus, which focuses on quick passes, ball control, technique, rapid movement and fitness. Competitions will also be organised.
Through sponsorships and co-payment from schools, he hopes the children can be charged as little as $3.30 per training session.
He said: "This will not happen overnight. We need good partners, volunteers and parents to get involved. We have to start from the bottom of the pyramid.
"The national team you see today came from seeds planted 10 years ago. There is nothing I can do to impact the quality of today's team. We have to work on the team that will play 10 years from now.
"All we need is just about two hours of the children's time."
Mr Tan is one of four FAS vice-presidents, the others being Member of Parliament and lawyer Edwin Tong, lawyer Lim Kia Tong and Singapore Pools chief executive Tan Soo Nan.
A President's Scholar who rose to the rank of brigadier-general in the armed forces and is now president of Singapore Technologies Kinetics' commercial business group, Mr Tan is not deterred by Singapore's small population.
Citing the examples of Trinidad and Tobago (population 1.3 million), Costa Rica (4.9 million), Croatia (4.3 million) and Uruguay (3.4 million), all of which have reached the World Cup finals, he said: "It shows that small countries can do it.
"Physical size is less and less significant. Tall players are blown away by smaller players. Agility, skill and teamwork are more important than sheer size."
This article was first published on October 12, 2014.
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