Football: Time for tweaks?

Football: Time for tweaks?
The Singapore Under-21 football team training during their Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy tournament in Brunei in August 2014.

It has been a tough year for Singapore's youth and developmental football teams.

The national Under-21 team (right) attracted the wrong kind of attention last month at the Hassanal Bolkiah Tournament in Brunei, where they were soundly beaten by their regional peers.

A makeshift team lost all their five games (0-4 to Vietnam, 1-3 to Cambodia, 1-3 to Brunei, 0-3 to Malaysia and 0-6 to Indonesia).

A week later, the women's U-19 team suffered their own heavy defeats in the AFF U-19 Women's Championship, beating Timor Leste 4-0 but losing to Vietnam (0-10), Thailand (0-14) and Myanmar twice (0-10 and 0-5).

The Courts Young Lions, who will form the backbone of Singapore's U-23 team at next June's South-east Asia (SEA) Games on home soil, are currently second-last in the S.League with five games left.

And the LionsXII's problems in this season's Malaysian Super League and Malaysia Cup have been well documented.

Some have suggested the poor year is just a blip, others disagree.

So, is there cause for real concern?

Shake-up needed in youth development system 

In the wake of the U-21s' hammering, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) explained that an under-strength team, comprising mainly U-19 players, were sent to Brunei for exposure.

But former national midfielder Syed Faruk says the poor outings highlight the Republic's limited talent pool, as a result of the FAS' youth development structure.

"Is the FAS developing 100 boys and taking the best 20 for a tournament? Or are they just developing 20?" he asked.

Faruk, who is on S.League champions Tampines Rovers' technical committee, said the FAS' focus on its National Football Academy (NFA) age-group teams has resulted in a lack of talented boys coming through elsewhere.

The Hassanal Bolkiah tournament squad were meant to be filled with the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) team, most of whom are in the U-19 squad that play in the Prime League.

But National Service and school commitments ruled some of them out, while some others have joined the reserve teams of S.League sides or dropped out of football completely.

This forced the FAS into forming a makeshift team with fringe players from S.League clubs and the LionsXII.

Faruk added that too many young players are slipping through the net.

"Nowadays, there are so many private football academies where so many young players pay to get coaching," he said.

"Our technical director Slobodan Pavkovic should create a structure where he can provide training for these boys for free.

"Why not go back to basics and set up something similar to the old Milo Football School, where hundreds of kids learned the basics every weekend under national coaches?"

Former national defender R Sasikumar believes that there is still talent coming through the system, but warns they might not reach their potential if the current system is not tweaked.

"You look at the Lion City Cup in recent years and you see the likes of Adam Swandi and Irfan Fandi showing what they can do," said Sasi, who manages sports marketing agency Red Card.

"As long as a large majority of our population do not play, we will have a small talent pool. But we've shown in the past we can work with these limitations.

"But the FAS needs to define a goal and treat every age-group team as individual projects that will lead to that goal.

"Right now, everything is loose. You have the Young Lions, you have the LionsXII, but what are you working towards? Are the teams part of a bigger plan?

"Who is responsible for our YOG boys? I don't expect to see all 25 (of the YOG squad) successful now, but who's monitoring that project?"

Dont forget the coaches 

While the question of whether there are enough quality young players coming through lingers, some have also highlighted the need for a pool of talented coaches to guide them.

Khairul Asyraf, a former Centre of Excellence (COE) coach with the youth teams of S.League sides Balestier Khalsa, Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar United, echoed Sasi's observation that a lack of continuity and leadership of the YOG boys have resulted in the squad starting to fall apart.

Khairul said: "They had different coaches at the Asian Youth Games (the late David Sivalingam in 2009) and YOG (Kadir Yahaya in 2010), then Takuma Koga (a Japanese coach recommended by the Japan Football Association) after that. Pavkovic and later Richard Bok (in June) came in this year.

"We can change the structure in two ways. Either have one coach progress all the way with one team, or do it the Spanish way and get specialist coaches at different age groups to pass the players along."

The 30-year-old, who now runs a private football academy with his brother, also feels that not enough is being done for coaches' education at the grassroots level.

He said: "In fairness to the FAS, it has tried to carry out coaches' education with the resources it has. But, to me, it's too focused on the elite level - coaches who lead national youth sides.

"Not enough is being done to groom quality grassroots coaches. They focus so much on the 'cream' but, if they don't perform, then what happens?"

Faruk agreed, adding that not enough resources are put in further down the youth coaching ladder.

"If you want good coaches, you can't pay peanuts," he said.

"The fact is that many schools and private academies pay better than the NFA, so you find many ex-international and S.League players coaching there instead.

"If I'm not wrong, we are the South-east Asian country with the most pro-licence holders, so technically we should have the best coaches in our national youth system.

"But there's a big question mark over that."

Sasi said that apart from financially, there also has to be more support in others areas like mentorship for young coaches.

He said: "Our former national coach Barry Whitbread was here for the Lion City Cup last year and he pointed out how so many ex-players like Fandi Ahmad, V Sundramoorthy, Nazri Nasir and Rafi Ali have gone into coaching.

"But he also asked, 'Who is mentoring them? Because, once these coaches get their badges and qualifications, they are left to their own devices'.

"You look at football all over the world and the top coaches always have mentors to look up to and learn from.

"Here, there's this problem at every level. If we don't address it, nothing will move."

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