Much has been said about the current state of football in Singapore.
Despite a modest resident population of about four million, there is no shortage of footballing talent and many children are exposed to the game through publicly funded or private academies.
However, many would drop out and eventually give up competitive football altogether as academic pursuits take precedence and national service beckons.
Even with the best grassroots and youth development programmes, the retention rate of talent is simply too low to feed our national team and the local leagues.
To stem the talent drain, we need a thriving football industry that can support financially rewarding and sustainable careers not only for players, but also the entire fraternity, including coaches, officials, sports science specialists, marketeers and pundits, in order to attract and retain talent within the industry.
A vibrant football scene will also bring back paying fans and sponsors - the lifeblood of a self-sustaining business model - and spark media interest, thereby raising the profile of the game.
As the developmental phase of a player starts at school-going age and continues through national service, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) would do well to work closely with the education and defence ministries to harness talented players as they progress.
For instance, by incorporating football into the school curriculum, albeit limiting it to one class per school, such that students identified with footballing potential can trade their physical education or music lessons for training guided by qualified coaches, parents and students will no longer have to choose between studies and football.
A similar approach can be adopted for selected national servicemen by substituting non-military specific training like physical training sessions with football training.
The key to raising the standard of football in Singapore hinges on developing an ecosystem that is conducive for the sport to thrive as an industry, thereby attracting a sustained pipeline of talent, and facilitating training and development continuity for budding players from when in school until they turn professional.
FAS, as the main authority of local football, has to take the lead in rejuvenating the sport.
Bold changes are needed to stop the rot and there is no better time than now.
Leong Kok Hoe
This article was first published on March 31, 2017. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.