Singapore football moves forward

Singapore football moves forward
Safuwan Baharudin in training with Melbourne City.

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The excitement built up as the minutes ticked down to kick-off, the eyes looked out for him at every opportunity.

The eyes would spend nearly 60 minutes of the derby urgently seeking him out, little prayers were muttered whenever he touched the ball, passed it or slid in for a tackle.

It was exhilarating when Safuwan Baharudin (right) played his first match for Melbourne City in the A-League; I was impressed at his fearlessness when he sometimes issued instructions to teammates.

There have been some important forward steps made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) over the last few weeks.

It helped broker a deal that eventually saw 23-year-old Safuwan move on loan to Melbourne City.

It signed a deal with MP & Silva worth $25 million over six years, the biggest in the history of football here, and the agreement promises high-profile "glamour" friendlies for the Lions, tough pre-tournament jousts and also opens up a crucial link with countries like Belgium for overseas adventures for our players and coaches.

Yesterday, as Great Eastern extended its deal with the S.League for two years, FAS president Zainudin Nordin surprisingly revealed that the competition is undergoing a major review and it will eventually involve the main stakeholders.

Privatising clubs is being discussed and the end game is to improve the quality of play, excite sponsors, ensure clubs are in the black and, most importantly, consistently attract a healthy fan turnout at matches.

It has been 20 years since the launch of the competition in 1996.

It started on a predictable high, after a few years interest started to wane and, while there have been a mix of tweaks and some big changes initiated to breathe fire into the S.League, it has been a struggle to make it work and the review of the Great Eastern Yeo's S.League is a critical move.

Perhaps Zainudin and his team can try to connect more of our talented footballers with A-League clubs, or even strike deals with European outfits.

He has yet to find his best form but I believe LionsXII striker Sahil Suhaimi, still only 22, has bags of potential and could flourish abroad.

More importantly, there should be an attempt to try and send Hariss Harun to a European club again, or maybe even an A-League outfit, following in the footsteps of Safuwan.

The Johor Darul Ta'zim star would not have looked out of place in the battle for midfield supremacy in the Melbourne Derby.

The 24-year-old is Singapore's best footballer and may well be tempted, despite rejecting a move to Rio Ave of the Portuguese top flight in 2013.

The FAS has kicked off the mission to send Singapore players to better football climes and, after Safuwan, it has to turn into a constant trickle, to boost the local game.

There is much more to address and improve, like facilities, the quality of coaches and the desperate need to grow the pool of football-playing youngsters at primary school level.

S.League clubs need to improve their administrative teams, their players need to be paid better, these players need to bring their fitness levels to a whole new level.

There was much despair when Singapore failed to light up the new National Stadium last year in the defence of the AFF Suzuki Cup.

HOPE LOOMS

But Fandi Ahmad's LionsXII have started their Malaysian Super League campaign in style and the young men in the team are going to experience life as professional footballers, travelling on the road, playing in front of hostile crowds and returning home to try and strut in front of their own fans.

The S.League is about to enter a 20th season, Aide Iskandar's Young Lions are performing well as they build towards the South-east Asia Games on home soil in June, and Safuwan is starring Down Under.

His salary is apparently less than what he earned with the LionsXII, but I believe the FAS are contributing as well to make up for it, and that's an impressive gesture.

Maybe, I will see young Singaporeans wearing the colours of Melbourne City with the No. 29 on their backs on the streets in the next few weeks.

That will be another sign that Singapore football is moving forward.

leonardt@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 12, 2015.
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