Michel Sablon wants youngsters to have fun with football

It has been nearly two months since you were appointed on April 9. What have you been working on?

The objective of my job here is to enhance the quality of Singapore football by creating a new youth development plan.

The plan we have come up with, which was proposed to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) exco last week, starts with a grassroots manual which will be launched on Aug 15.

It contains our philosophy, a way of developing kids in the same way, be it at the grassroots level, in schools, or FAS Centres of Excellence.

The main thing is we start from small-sided games, from one against one, three versus three and so on, up to 11 v 11.

The manual has details, like how, at six and seven years old, we start the kids by playing fun games, to have fun with and without the football. Then, at eight and nine, a bit more technical games.

What I call the golden years are when the player is from 10 to 13. That's when they go from 5 v 5, to 8 v 8 and then to 11 v 11.

Right now, our objective is to have as many children playing football as possible.

There are 187 primary schools in Singapore, you have 220,000 children in them. If we have 10 per cent of them playing, that's already about 22,000.

FAS vice-president Bernard Tan has also zoomed in on widening the base of youngsters in primary schools playing football. How do you plan to implement the manual at that level, where some schools are coached by teachers who do not possess coaching badges?

We have (Varatha) Rajan, who was a teacher at the Sports School (and is now FAS general manager of youth development) and we have discussed about organising a workshop for the teachers. He has the contacts.

We want everyone teaching football to youngsters in Singapore to apply the same philosophy. Not because it's FAS' philosophy or mine, but because it's proven this way of teaching is the best for children.

How much priority have you placed on developing local coaches?

Coaches' education is one of the pillars of FAS' strategic plan and, to me, it is the most important one.

Right now, we are in discussions with the AFC (the Asian Football Confederation), because it will also introduce a new coaches' education system soon.

I know because their new technical director Andy Roxburgh (former Scotland coach and Fifa technical director from 1994 to 2012, who was appointed in March) is a good friend of mine. I started coaches' education with him and Gerard Houllier in Europe in 1994.

I will meet Andy next week to talk about the upcoming AFC coaches education programme.

Because I have worked with him closely on coaching programmes for 20 years and, since I will speak to him soon, the FAS could be a role model in Asia for the implementation of the new AFC programme.

Will there be any change to the national youth set-up?

Currently, we have NFA (National Football Academy) teams Under-13, U-14, U-15, U-16, U-17, U-18 and U-21.

We will skip the U-13 next year because, like I said before, this is a crucial transition year to come from small-sided games to 11 v 11.

Plus, selecting players at 10 or 12, is much too early. You cannot say if a player will become a good player or not.

I give you an example. Kevin de Bruyne (who stars for Bundesliga club Wolfsburg) is now one of the best young midfielders in the world.

But he was a shy, small guy who was not a really excellent player at that age, 10, 11, 12.

In addition, we will create an U-20 team from next year, because I think the gap of three years between U-18 and U-21 is too much.

Then the next step for this new team will be to prepare for qualification to the Olympics.

I know recent results of the national youth teams are not good.

But you have to know the result, at youth level, is absolutely not important.

What we are trying to implement here is a better education of the players. The teams will become better when the players become better.

Do you think you can convince youth coaches that winning matches really doesn't matter?

In the new development plan, this is crucial.

I had the same procedure in Belgium when I started.

We changed the playing system for national teams over a day.

There were more unhappy people than those who were happy. But you can see the results now.

The focus was not on results in the first year, it was on making players better. Maybe you are right. The coaches of the national teams now are too focused on results or winning games. But maybe they are evaluated on those results, which is also not right.

The right thing to do is to see in the beginning of the season, how they train, what the training programme is, and how the players progress.

From now on, our youth coaches will not be judged on the results of the team, but on the way they develop the players.

You must know of the challenge of Singapore's National Service. How do you plan to work around this?

It's a big problem. I'm not directly involved in this discussion but, when we are credible and can propose a good development plan, then we can go (to the authorities) and perhaps they can help us.

We will not go there and ask for things. We will give them things. When I was coaching the U-21s in Belgium (where military service is mandatory), I was also supervisor of the military team in Belgium.

Lastly, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Family? Any hobbies?

My wife is here in Singapore with me. I have two children, a boy and a girl who are both grown up, and I have five grandchildren.

I miss them all, of course, but we Skype every week or two weeks, and I hope they can visit us in a few weeks or months.

But, for the moment, my wife and I have a nice apartment in the East Coast. We feel good, we have been supported very well by the FAS.

Hobbies? I bought a bicycle. I'm Belgian after all! FAS' strategic plan on track

FAS' strategic plan on track

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has been punching above its weight, but it needs even more support to take local football to the next level.

That's the assessment of its new technical director Michel Sablon, whose Belgian blueprint produced footballers like Chelsea's Premier League Player of the Year Eden Hazard and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany.

In an exclusive interview with The New Paper yesterday, the 67-year-old said: "(The) FAS has achieved much despite not getting the necessary resources.

"However, it is important that every stakeholder in Singapore come together and work as one unit in overcoming the constraints, including limited financial resources.

"There is potential for us to achieve more and I am very confident that we will do so. What we need is the support, resources and time."


Last year, the FAS operated on a budget of $9.7 million.

In contrast, regional neighbours Indonesia spent $112 million, while the budgets of the football federations of Vietnam ($60m), Thailand ($52m) and Malaysia ($35m) also dwarfed the expenses of the FAS.

Despite the constraints, the FAS managed to achieve several key objectives set out in its 2010 Strategic Plan.

It included the setting up of the Junior Centre of Excellence (JCOE) programme for elite footballers aged eight to 12, the refurbishment of the national team's training facility at Geylang Field, and the signing of a six-year, $25-million deal with MP & Silva Group, an international sports media rights company.

It has also consistently been among the top-ranked national sports associations in annual reviews, receiving endorsements from top international football officials like Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, France Football Federation vice-president Bernard Desumer and Japan Football Association general secretary Kohzo Tashima.

However, the results of the national teams, from the age-groups through to the senior team, have been a low point.

Sablon, though, is undeterred.

He says he is impressed by the work done by FAS in areas like sports science, and pointed to a report produced on injury and young players as something that he found interesting and useful as he develops a coaches' education programme that will be launched later this year.

Above all, Sablon preaches positive thinking.

"In every area of the strategic plan, there has been good work done, so I want to build on those positives," he said.

"That's what I did in Belgium, and even then it took almost eight years.

"The only way to be successful is in the strength of positive thinking. You never (achieve) things as a negative thinker.

"We should not be blind to weaknesses, of course, but we should build up our positives.

"The most difficult thing is not applying new ideas, it's stopping the old ones. Changing the mindset and escaping from the old ways of doing things.

"I hope our stakeholders will have the same attitude of positive thinking to make things happen."

This article was first published on May 28, 2015.
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