WHAT Belgium did in three to four years, Singapore can do in less, according to the man tasked with rejuvenating local football from the youth to elite levels.
In his first press conference yesterday as the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) technical director, Michel Sablon said it was a "good sign" that youngsters here were technically sound and passionate about the game.
"If it was the other way around and they were physically strong but had no technique, then it's hard for me," the 67-year-old Belgian, appointed on a two-year contract, noted. "The general rule in football is you must keep working hard on every aspect of your game. Singapore kids have this passion, I believe."
But what troubles Belgium's former Olympic coach is the absence of a unified vision for teaching and playing football among schools, academies and clubs here.
The same issue presented itself in his previous role as the national technical director at the Royal Belgian Football Federation. Sablon then introduced a 10-year masterplan in 2006 that sparked a golden generation of Belgian players who currently ply their trade across Europe's top clubs, such as Chelsea star Eden Hazard.
Those players helped the Red Devils reach last year's World Cup quarter-finals - quite a feat for a country of only 11 million, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues.
But Sablon had to first tackle sceptical coaches focused solely on results. He had - perhaps radically at the time - asked all clubs to adopt a 4-3-3 formation below the Under-18 level.
After engaging academics to film and analyse 1,500 youth games, he also proposed five-versus-five games at youth level, seven against seven for older kids and a delayed introduction to full-size pitches.
Promising youngsters were fast-tracked to the next age-group level. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, for instance, featured for the Belgium Under-19s when he was just 16.
"We lost 1-9 to France in the first game after the system was introduced," Sablon recalled wryly.
"But we maintained our way of building a passing game and clubs learnt that with this style, their players got better."
Hardly a surprise then that "give us time" was Sablon's most-used phrase yesterday.
He cited national service as a potential challenge, quickly adding his hope in finding a way around players' development being halted at a critical juncture.
The Flanders native believes the FAS' Centres of Excellence should also cater to children as young as five and churn out age-specific curricula.
"An Under-14 training session cannot be the same for U-9," the father of two noted. "Also, like in Belgium, we must have four to five players at each level playing above their age category."
As for the national team, Sablon plans to work closely with coach Bernd Stange, even as he is expected to have a say on the future of the beleaguered German, whose contract ends after the SEA Games in June.
He said: "Bernd is an experienced coach. We have clear job descriptions. I will assist him in any way I can and vice-versa."
Besides rebuilding the youth development pipeline and grooming local coaches, Sablon will also lead the Republic's bid to host either the 2019 or 2021 U-17 World Cup.
He had served as a director of Uefa Euro 2000, co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands.
Dressed in a full suit and accompanied by wife Mimi, Sablon is clear on what he will consider a job well done in Singapore. He said: "Enhance the youth development structure, build a healthy attitude towards football and train coaches to Uefa standards."
Coming from someone who expects a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque work ethic from all his charges, jaded fans will hope those words prove prescient in a few years' time.
This article was first published on Apr 10, 2015.
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