Recipe for success

LionsXII footballer Hariss Harun at a training session held on 27 September 2013, the day prior to the first leg Malaysia Cup quarter-final match against ATM FA at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) revealed on Monday that it will appoint a new technical director before the end of March.

The search for a successor to Serb Slobodan Pavkovic has been narrowed down to five candidates, who were shortlisted from over 60 applicants from the top 20 countries in the world football rankings.

The appointment will represent the final piece of the jigsaw for the FAS as its vice-presidents Bernard Tan and Edwin Tong work to prepare a detailed proposal to host either the 2019 or 2021 Fifa Under-17 World Cup.

The association had announced at its Annual General Meeting last September that they would bid to bring the biennial tournament to the Lion City.

Not since Malaysia hosted the U-20 World Cup in 1997 has the region seen an international football tournament of such magnitude.

As Tong explained to The New Paper (see sidebar on far right), the new technical director's job scope will revolve around Singapore's proposal for the Youth World Cup and improving the overall standard of the age-group teams so that a Cubs team will be able to compete against the world's best in four to six years' time.

So how should he go about doing it? Here are some expert views.

1 START YOUNG, START SIMPLE

Former Malaysia coach B Sathianathan's advice is simple and straightfoward - go back to the basics.

The 56-year-old assisted Frenchman Claude Le Roy, who coached Malaysia, during the 1997 Under-20 World Cup which Malaysia qualified as hosts.

Sathianathan recalled how Malaysian players, selected through open trials as there was no proper centralised youth system in the country then, found themselves out of their depth at the youth World Cup. They lost all three group games - 1-3 to Morocco and Uruguay and 0-3 to Belgium.

When asked what Singapore's new technical director should work on, Sathianathan (right) said: "He has to start them younger. It's good you have a national U-12 team now, but you should look to go even younger.

"Start them at eight years old, and help them get the basics right, polish their ability on the ball. It's important the new technical director puts a system in place to produce many talents, and not only produce a team for a particular tournament, because we've seen many times how some players blossom at a later age."

Fifa's technical study team for the 1997 tournament noted in its report that "top-level football would be possible" only if Malaysia began a "continuous programme" to develop players at an early age.

Seak Poh Leong, who was FAS' technical director from 1985 to 1991, agreed.

He said that the new technical director also needs support and resources.

Seak said: "I've read about Bernard Tan talking about grassroots football and building the base, and that's a good place to start.

"But then, do we have the coaches in place to help build the base? It (coach education) is a process and we need to look at it closely and keep going at it."

2 TEST AGAINST THE BEST

Another finding from the Fifa technical report was that the Malaysian players were simply too green for a tournament the scale of the Youth World Cup.

Sathia said exposure to different styles of football is a key step to accelerating young players' development, and to close the gap between the top teams and those from, say, South-east Asia.

"Let them play in tournaments - not just friendly matches - against other youngsters from Europe, South America, maybe even Africa... all kinds of football," said the coach.

"The Malaysia U-20 team went to Australia and Asian countries in the first year, then Germany, France and Morocco in the second.

"But we played only friendly matches, so when it came to the tournament, we were essentially fast-tracking them. It's a completely different thing.

"In schools, if you don't have exams, you won't know if you are able to put what you learned to good use. In football, the exams are in the form of competitive games."

Another coach - a former member of FAS' technical department who asked not to be named - also stressed the importance of playing competitive matches overseas, as opposed to simply playing friendly matches which do not have the same intensity.

He said: "If we are eventually announced as hosts for a Youth World Cup, there will be numerous requests from top teams to play matches in Singapore, to get a feel of the local conditions before the tournament itself, and we should try to take advantage of this situation.

"If possible, we should consider sending national teams to compete in a well-run foreign youth league, for example, in Germany, and signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the German Football Federation could help make it a reality.

"Of course, financial and academic issues need to be sorted out, and maybe even National Service, but it's worth looking at the possibility."

3 KNOW HIS ROLES

Seak stressed that the FAS needs to make clear to the technical director on the areas that he will have the most influence over. It must also do its best to ensure that his recommendations are met.

"You must know what you want, and you must have patience," said the former national captain.

"I was part of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) technical study group that watched women's football at the 1994 Asian Cup. Japan were considered kacang putih (Malay slang for minnows) back then. But, 17 years later, they won the World Cup, beating the United States. This wasn't a gift from the heavens. They had a masterplan they worked on in the long term. That's what we have to do. We cannot just bring a guy in, then he leaves three years later without any proper system in place."

Seak also hopes to see capable people assist the top man.

"A football technical director is like a managing director of a company. He needs good lieutenants around him... if one area is not doing well, the whole company does not do well."

4 RESOLVE THE NATIONAL SERVICE ISSUE

The issue of National Service has cropped up countless times over the years.

National team lynchpin Hariss Harun (left) missed a home World Cup qualifier against Iraq in September, 2011, because he was still serving his basic training in the Singapore Police Force.

At the South-east Asia (SEA) Games in December, 2013, national servicemen Madhu Mohana and Faris Ramli arrived just a day before the Under-23s' first match against Laos.

In May last year, LionsXII defender Shakir Hamzah was charged for being absent without official leave (AWOL), and served four days in detention, after he travelled to Kuantan to play in a Malaysian Super League match.

Fandi Ahmad and Aide Iskandar, the coaches of the FAS' two developmental teams - the LionsXII and Courts Young Lions respectively - have continually struggled to get full squads for training sessions and matches, because of players' NS commitments.

Current programmes accord national athletes limited number of fully paid unrecorded leave days to train and compete, after which they have to utilise their annual leave.

A former coach who was part of the national set-up who also asked not to be named, said: "This is indeed the right time to find a solution to this problem. But NS is not the only issue... (the youngsters') academic pursuit is another.

"I am sure that, if there is more thinking out of the box, we could discover solutions."

Seak added: "If some say (NS) is a problem and, if the government is supportive (of the bid for Youth World Cup), then they should work together to come up with a new solution.

"For Goal 2010, we had the government's backing, and we saw changes to the system, like foreigners being fast-tracked for the national team.

"This is a chance for a change to be made for our young players."


This article was first published on December 31, 2014.
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