No U-turn, Lions must take brave new road

Singapore skipper, Shahril Ishak looks up clasping his hands together, in prayer, at the 67th minute as Singapore was trailing by 2-0 against Oman.

SINGAPORE - Scanning the pitch in front of him, Hariss Harun saw an opportunity to pass in the 55th minute but, in a heartbeat, the Oman footballers fell back into position and blocked all his options.

The midfielder had no choice but to sweep the ball backwards.

The crowd at Jalan Besar Stadium hissed collectively, dismayed that another move had broken down as Singapore lost 0-2 in an Asian Cup qualifier on Wednesday. They were not impressed.

After the game, new Lions coach Bernd Stange insisted that the national team will persist with this new, high-tempo, quick-passing style.

Appointed in May, he said he needs at least six months before his work can bear fruit.

But it could take longer, possibly even beyond the German's two-year contract with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).

A former national player lamented: "Stange has good ideas and this is the way ahead. It is time for Singapore football to evolve but it is not easy for the players to grasp (the changes) in such a short period of time.

"Against Oman, you could see most of the players were not fighting hard enough to show that they deserve a place in the national team."

Former S-League coach Richard Bok added: "This is a process that takes time. Barcelona train children from the age of six to play like that.

"Stange's style is a spectacular form of football. It is also up to the current players to be receptive to his ideas as it is not easy to switch from one style to another overnight.

"Also, there is a question of whether Singapore fans are willing to wait for success - they are not known to be a patient lot."

When the FAS launched its National Football Syllabus, a 414-page coaching manual, in 2010, it wanted all teams to keep a 4-2-3-1 shape and its players to master a series of skills like dragging the ball with the sole of the boot and step-overs.

But to play the Stange way, youngsters not only have to master the basic skills but also move, pass and think faster. That requires years of coaching and dedication from them to keep fit.

It was obvious against Oman that the Lions were fit but not fit enough to do battle against Asia's elite.

Also, apart from Qiu Li and Indra Sahdan, the other nine who started against Oman came from the LionsXII.

The latter have won the Malaysian Super League with a mix of attacking football at home and a counter-attacking style dependent on set-pieces away.

The onus is on the FAS to reconcile the two very different schools of thought.

It might even need to revisit its national syllabus.

Stange's impressive resume - he inspired European minnows Belarus to victories over France and the Netherlands and draws with Argentina and Germany - proves he has the ability to help a team make a breakthrough.

It is why the FAS hired him. And also why it should now stand by its man.

Realistically, the Lions' chances of qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup Finals in Australia are over with two opening losses.

With no major tournament for the national team (December's SEA Games is an Under-23 tournament) until next year's ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup, it is time to bite the bullet and cull the Lions who cannot - or will not - help Stange fulfil his vision.

The FAS should not cave in to pressure from sulking stars, or fans who are disappointed with the initial results of a young squad struggling to come to grips with a new way of thinking.

Like it or not, the die has been cast.

Singapore football will have to take this brave new route unless it wants to remain stuck at the mezzanine level - great against teams from ASEAN but well behind the continent and world's best.

meng@sph.com.sg


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