Football: New director faces big task

Football: New director faces big task

He comes with a distinguished reputation, and already there are murmurs of a potential revolution in Singapore.

But make no mistake, newly-appointed national technical director Michel Sablon faces a formidable challenge to change the footballing landscape here.

The likely immediate task for the 67-year-old Belgian, whose appointment was announced yesterday by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), will be to revamp the youth pipeline that has struggled to produce technically-adept players needed to cope with the modern game.

None of the Republic's teams have managed to win a game this year, while the Under-21s were thrashed in last year's Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy in Brunei, suffering heavy defeats in all five matches against regional rivals.

Parallels can be drawn between Singapore's current plight, in which morale and optimism seem to have hit rock bottom, and the sorry state of Belgian football in 2000, before Sablon began his revisionist policies which have seen Belgium emerge as one of the strongest nations in football.

With a deep and wide home- grown talent pool despite its relatively modest population of 11 million, the Red Devils have risen to fourth spot in the Fifa world rankings (from a low of 71 in 2007) ahead of traditional superpowers like Brazil, Italy and France. World champions Germany are the only European team ahead of them.

Yet, such a transformation cannot be guaranteed, no matter the calibre of the visionary, said Jita Singh, FAS' head of game development for seven years before he resigned last year.

He said: "We can bring in the best technical director in the world but there are still limitations he has to work around and adapt to given our unique circumstances."

Chief among them are national service and the inclination towards books over boots.

"There are a lot of cultural differences here, compared to Europe where the mindset of parents may not be focused only on education," said former national footballer Steven Tan, now a youth coach.

Currently only Home United, Warriors FC and Balestier Khalsa run Centre of Excellence programmes for junior footballers, and this needs to be addressed immediately, said R. Vengadasalam, the Balestier Prime League team manager, who has been involved with the S-League since 1996.

He added: "Instead of relying on the national football academies to develop young players, we need to devote the resources back into the clubs and spread the game to a wider audience. This must be a priority for the new technical director."

The fact that Lions coach Bernd Stange recently called the newly-refurbished Geylang Field "the best pitch in Singapore now" is indicative of the lack of infrastructure that Sablon, who oversaw the building of Belgium's national football centre on the outskirts of Brussels, faces.

Said former Lions defender R. Sasikumar, who runs sports marketing agency Red Card Global: "If he needs 30 fields to train and develop the kids, will he be able to find it here? Unfortunately that's the reality in Singapore."

Financially, the playing field is lopsided too. The FAS' budget of around $8.5 million a year is dwarfed by the likes of Japan ($264 million), China ($180 million) and even Indonesia ($112 million) and Malaysia ($35 million).

The recent $25 million, six-year deal FAS signed with international sports media rights company MP & Silva has come at an opportune time but more investment is needed, added Sasikumar.

Sablon's reputation could make it easier for him to bulldoze his plans through.

The former national assistant coach persuaded all parties - including the 34 professional clubs in Belgium and schools - to follow his blueprint despite their different goals.

His plan, which he had adopted from neighbouring France and the Netherlands, included playing a 4-3-3 system at all age groups and levels.

It may have created dissent among the professional clubs, who did not take kindly to being dictated to, but the results have been undeniable and reinforced Sablon's international standing.

Said Hougang United chairman Bill Ng: "We are prepared to listen to him and if a complete overhaul is required to bring about positive change to local football, of course we are willing to work together with him and the FAS."

This article was first published on April 3, 2015.
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