Football: Time for tweaks?

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."

FAS: We're on the right track

Technical director Pavkovic says the way forward is to send young players overseas.

Youth development in Singapore football is on the right track, but the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs more funding and resources to take it to the next level.

That's the assessment of the FAS technical director Slobodan Pavkovic, in response to queries from The New Paper regarding the recent unflattering results of the Republic's youth and developmental teams.

Pavkovic, who assumed his role in 2008, insisted that there is no shortage of talented young players coming through the national age-group teams.

He said: "I am heartened by the development of our players who progressed through our youth development system... Our players are intelligent and have the ability to succeed at the top Asian level.

"(Players) such as Iqbal Hussain and Safuwan Baharudin have also progressed from the age groups to the senior national team and both were identified by coaches from top European teams as having the potential to eventually play in Europe."

The FAS says that Courts Young Lions forward Iqbal, 21, and LionsXII defender Safuwan, 23, caught the eye of former Borussia Moenchengladbach coach Hans Meyer, former Munich 1860 and Skoda Xanthi coach Rainer Maurer and Dinamo Moscow coach Stanislav Cherchesov during a training camp in Austria in July.

Said Pavkovic: "We have a good pool of talented players and I firmly believe that more would be presented with the opportunity to play overseas if we have more resources to send our players, at a young age, to play more top-level international matches and to train in better facilities.

"We must secure the required level of resources in order to maximise the potential of our players. It is important for the FAS to obtain (these) resources needed for the next phase of its strategic plan, and to secure more regular overseas stints where our boys will take on stronger and tougher opponents."

P N Sivaji, who had stints as national coach and technical director, agreed with the Serb.

Most recently head coach of Kanbawza in Myanmar, he said: "While it is important for the youth players to train on a regular basis, it is also important for them to play quality matches regularly so as to practise what they have learned and ensure they maintain a competitive edge.

Apart from additional funding, Sivaji (above) said that two issues - players being unavailable to train regularly because of school and National Service (NS) commitments, and the lack of facilities - are challenges the FAS has to work around.

He said: "While the key goals and programmes spelt out in the strategic plan are visionary and are integral to the long-term success of local football, these are two key structural issues which will always restrict the level of success we can achieve.

"We have the ideas and the talent, and there is no reason why we cannot reach the top levels of Asian football.

What's missing 

"The only missing ingredient is the most important: A solution to resolve the lack of training facilities and unavailability of players."

Pavkovic said that Singapore has a good youth-development system in place, after the setting up of 10 Junior Centres of Excellece (JCOE) from Under-6 to Under-12 levels in recent years.

This year also saw the restructuring of S.League club's COE by reducing the number of clubs running the programmes but expanding the number of age-groups.

In addition, said the former Kuwait national coach, the FAS also has a sound coaches' education programme in place.

On top of the various Asian Football Confederation (AFC) coaching certificate courses conducted on a regular basis, the FAS has also organised the AFC Pro Diploma course, which has resulted in 20 of its coaches now possessing the highest coaching accreditation issued by Asia's football body.

There is also a proper mentorship programme in place.

"For instance, our senior coaching personnel will work closely with our young coaches on the preparations for upcoming competitions and may, depending on the necessity, also serve as technical advisers during the tournament," said Pavkovic.

"The FAS also actively seeks opportunities to invite leading international officials to present and share with local coaches the best practices in modern football.

"The technical directors of Fifa (Jean-Michel Benezet), Austrian Football Association (Willy Ruttensteiner), French Football Federation (Francois Blaquart), former England Under-21 coach Brian Eastick, and senior coaches from Atletico Madrid and Juventus were among those who have visited Singapore and shared their views on key topics with local coaches in recent years."

Sivaji urged local coaches to expand their horizons and not simply depend on attachments arranged by the FAS, if they aim to become top coaches.

"It's great to see Fandi Ahmad (at Johor Darul Ta'zim last year), V Sundramoorthy (Negeri Sembilan), Mike Wong (technical director in Brunei) and Stephen Ng (youth coach in Brunei) challenging themselves to take on jobs overseas," he said.

"Our coaches, however, should aim to learn from the best in Europe if they aspire to take on the top local coaching jobs someday. "The hardships and challenges that they have encountered, or will encounter, will definitely make them better coaches and stronger men."

msazali@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Sept 4 in The New Paper.

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