Can Singapore reach the World Cup? Here’s what it’s doing to nurture football stars

Singapore is working to give young players as many opportunities to develop their football skills as possible.
PHOTO: GetActive Singapore

It is 8am on Sunday and about 40 boys and girls in blue jerseys and knee-high socks stand ready at the Farrer Park Field in central Singapore.

For the next hour, these three to eight-year-olds will work on football drills and compete against each other, under the instruction of coaches from the ActiveSG Football Academy.

The field is one of 14 training venues under the academy, which has seen a steady rise in the number of players over recent years.

The academy had about 400 players at five centres when it was first established in 2016 by ActiveSG — the national movement for sport by Sport Singapore — as a way to get more children involved in football.

By 2019, there were about 8,000 players in 13 centres. Covid-19 restrictions have caused the numbers to drop to about 6,000.

Boys from the Under-eight age group play a mini football match during an ActiveSG academy session at Farrer Park Field. PHOTO: Natalie Tan

Steven Tan, 51, who heads the Farrer Park centre, said the growth in participation was promising for Singapore football.

"The question is, 10 years from now, how many players will stay in the game?" the former national player asked.

This is what the Unleash the Roar project, a national effort to lift local football, aims to address. It was announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong this year.

In 2019, when Tong was vice-president of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), he told The Straits Times it was a realistic goal for Singapore to qualify for the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

Headed by the FAS and SportSG, the programme aims to shake up the football scene with the help of the youth and education ministries.

If all the ideas materialise, Singapore will see much greater participation among children, better coaches in schools, a strengthened local youth league, and more opportunities for boys and girls to train in elite programmes and compete in top overseas leagues.

Some 6,000 Singaporean children are enrolled in ActiveSG Football Academy’s training programmes.
PHOTO: A handout photo.

Plans are under way to set up football academies in secondary schools, where students can train under top coaches. Scholarships will also be given to the best players to train in Australia, Europe and the United States.

The scheme also includes plans to beef up amateur football through the National Football Curriculum, a blueprint for how football fundamentals should be taught to primary schoolchildren.

These elements form the first phase of the project and are expected to be in place in 2022.

FAS deputy president Bernard Tan, 55, said Singapore had to improve in three areas to succeed: football participation, the quality of coaching, and how long and hard players practised.

He cited small countries, such as Iceland, with a population of about 343,000, and Croatia, which has some 4 million people, as good examples to emulate.

"In these countries, about 70 per cent of boys play football. If you are a small country, the participation rate is crucial," he said. "With Unleash the Roar, the aim is to get 10 per cent of boys and five per cent of girls, or about 3,000 in each cohort, to play regularly."

While those in the football fraternity welcome the ambition to improve local football, many are sceptical it will be any different from past projects that did not hit the mark, such as the earlier goal to qualify for the World Cup in 2010.

FAS technical director Joseph Palatsides, 56, recognised a need to learn from past mistakes.

"If we're honest with ourselves, we've tried to put in place good footballing strategies in the past, but we probably haven't implemented them to the best of our ability," he said.

Singapore’s Unleash the Roar programme aims to boost local football with the help of the youth and education ministries. PHOTO: A handout photo.

Others say the youth development system is beset by problems such as insufficient opportunities for children to learn and play football, and a paper chase culture that comes at the expense of sporting pursuits.

Kids need to play more

The first phase of the project aims to create more opportunities for young children to receive high-quality training at the school and grass roots levels.

Most are not sufficiently exposed to football from an early age and often end up underdeveloped when they join Singapore Premier League (SPL) clubs at the age of 15, coaches say.

Afiq Yahya, 30, the head youth coach at SPL club Tampines Rovers, said it was sad to see street football spaces empty, and young footballers lacking the fundamental skills which children gain from street football.

"When I watch the Under-15 training session, I see they can't even do a simple pass," he said. "These are all basic things they should be learning when they're between 10 and 14."

"The performance of our youth age groups at international tournaments isn't at the level we want to be" said Joseph Palatsides.

Hougang United's head of youth Han Yiguang, 36, said more primary schools should have football teams, so that good players could be identified and given more opportunities to train.

Currently, only 105 of the 179 primary schools offer football as a co-curricular activity (CCA), while more than 80 secondary schools out of 136 offer the sport.

Outside schools, private academies are another avenue for children to play football, but these can cost parents hundreds of dollars a month.

The FAS has plans to take football to more primary schools, kindergartens and student care centres through the Unleash the Roar project, said technical director Palatsides.

"We've found that the performance of our youth age groups at international tournaments isn't at the level we want to be, and that's probably because at a younger age, we haven't instilled the fundamentals of football," he said.

Children at an ActiveSG Football Academy training session.  PHOTO: A handout photo.

As part of the Unleash the Roar project, the FAS and SportSG plan to set up school football academies in 10 to 15 selected secondary schools to nurture elite footballers from 2022.

Team lead from Unleash the Roar, Clifton Dragon, 45, said the school academies would give committed teenagers more than one way to become professionals.

Players at these academies will train four times a week under top coaches and also benefit from assistant, fitness and goalkeeper coaches that schools typically do not have. They will also compete in an elite league separate from the National School Games.

Dragon said the schools were chosen based on their football history and performance, as well as location.

While those on the pilot programme, such as St Patrick's School and Assumption English School, hope it will raise the standard of football in their schools, one concern is whether students can cope with four training sessions a week, up from the typical two or three.

FAS head of youth programmes and administration Varatha Rajan Subramaniam, 53, said there were plans to support the players' schoolwork, such as supervised study time before training sessions. Team managers will also monitor their academic performance and conduct.

Young players warm up ahead of a match in Hangzhou, China. PHOTO: A handout photo.

Football and studies

Joshua De Souza remembers failing mathematics while he was at St Gabriel's Secondary School. He spent almost all his time on football and wanted to get out of school as quickly as possible so he could pursue a football career.

"The education system here does not support athletes. I had to choose between studying or football to become better and I clearly chose football," said De Souza, 20, now playing for Balestier Khalsa.

Many aspiring footballers face the same choice between studies and their sport, with most choosing studies. In fact, football academies have noticed that parents often withdraw their children from programmes when major examinations come around.

Civil servant Sharon Tan, 39, whose two sons aged seven and 10 are with the ActiveSG Football Academy, said she would only support their football aspirations if they had at least a diploma or a degree.

"They must complete their basic education so that when they retire from playing, they will still be able to do things like coaching or teaching," she said.

Lion City Sailors scholar Kieran Tan with his dad, Peter. Kieran also plays for his school, St Joseph’s Institution.
PHOTO: Bernice Yong

In the tug between sports and studies, the Singapore Sports School is a unique institution that promotes excellence in both.

Students benefit from an athlete-friendly curriculum which includes daily supervised study sessions and postsecondary programmes where they can bypass national exams.

Those in its football programme train five times a week in a professional environment, and many go on to play in SPL clubs or national age group teams.

The Lion City Sailors, the city's first privatised club, is taking steps to train young talent and help them with their studies.

The club, which competes in the SPL, recently started a scholarship programme where players attend its football academy for free and are given academic support in the form of on-site tutors and study rooms at the club's upcoming $10 million training centre. Scholars are also expected to maintain good grades.

The Sailors are the first to introduce an academic requirement in its football programme, and parents believe this can address pertinent challenges such as balancing studies and football, as well as the uncertainty of a post-football career.

Peter Tan, 49, whose 13-year-old son, Kieran, is in the pioneer batch of scholars, believes the programme makes pursuing football more attractive to talented boys. The semi-retiree said the club works with the school to get feedback on players' performance and checks on their school work.

Lion City Sailors academy director Luka Lalic, 34, said the programme was adapted to Singapore's context and helped scholars to fulfil both school and football obligations.

Scholars are not allowed to miss training because of school, or train if they do not finish their homework or fail, added Serbian-born Lalic, who joined the Sailors in June 2020 after a stint with Dutch side Feyenoord.

The St Patrick’s School football team trains three times a week. PHOTO: Bernice Yong

In training youth, Singapore should also look to Japan, say coaches.

The Asian football powerhouse, which is 26th in the FIFA ranking, also has a strong paper chase culture and players who are physically smaller-built.

But unlike Singapore, which stands at 160, children there have more opportunities to play competitively and excel in school. Most schools in Japan offer football as a major co-curricular activity.

In Singapore, only about six in 10 secondary schools have competitive school football teams. Japan has more than 3,900 high school teams across about 4,900 as of 2020 — almost eight in 10.

Youth players can also join their prefecture home teams, giving them an avenue to play even if they do not make it to one of the 57 elite youth clubs under the Japanese Professional Football League (J.League).

Some clubs have an academic prerequisite to ensure players can balance football and school, said J.League strategic planning manager Takeharu Ueda, 51.

Japanese youth can compete in eight age categories, compared to Singapore's three. They train five times a week and play a match almost every week, while Singapore's elite youth teams train three to four times a week and play only about 20 matches each year.

Takeshi Yamazaki, 56, the academy director at J2 League club Matsumoto Yamaga, said footballers were motivated to study hard to enter university, where football is highly competitive and players stand a chance to be scouted for J.League teams.

Of the Japanese players who signed their first professional contract in 2020, 56 per cent came from university teams, while 28 per cent were previously at a J.League club academy and 13 per cent were from high school teams.

Other key elements to Japan's success include a countrywide scouting network and programmes that help players settle into post-football careers.

A coach trains children at an ActiveSG Football session. PHOTO: Facebook

Coaches need support

Meanwhile, more needs to be done to enhance coaching support across the board and raise coaching standards, FAS deputy president Tan said.

Coaches in Singapore obtain their licences through courses run by the FAS and Asia's football governing body AFC. There are 24 coaches in the city state who have the top-tiered AFC Pro Licence, 52 coaches with an AFC 'A' Licence, 142 with an AFC 'B' Licence, and 695 with a FAS 'C' Licence.

To move up the licence tiers, coaches must fulfil certain prerequisites, such as a minimum number of coaching hours or years. For instance, applicants for the 'B' licence course must have coached for at least two consecutive years with 60 coaching hours each year and attained the 'C' licence.

Coaches are paid according to their qualifications. A 'B' licence is required to train elite youth players at club centres, and such coaches draw a salary of $2,500 to $4,500 a month.

For school coaches, the general hourly rate starts at $50 and sessions are typically two hours, twice or thrice a week. Most coach several teams to make ends meet.

Azlan Alipah, 44, who holds a 'B' licence, coaches the Montfort Junior and Secondary School teams, Geylang International's Under-17 and Under-21 teams, and assists the club's head coach.

"There will always be back-to-back training sessions and it's really tiring to rush everywhere," he said.

To improve the standard of coaching, coaches say there is also a need for more coaching education and mentorship programmes.

hildren at an ActiveSG Football training session. PHOTO: Facebook

FAS head of coach education and development Mohamed Zainudeen Hassan, 53, said the association would explore ways to provide more continued coaching education beyond one-time courses, as well as structured mentoring programmes where coaches can choose a mentor to work with.

"This will enable young coaches to get constant feedback, so they can move on and improve themselves," he said.

Former FAS staff coach Arasu Muthu Suppiah, 61, who was part of the Goal 2010 team, said he would like to see more resources devoted to developing local coaches, rather than bringing in foreign ones.

Local coaches should be sent for short overseas trips to countries such as Italy and Spain to learn from the best, he said.

"These Singaporean coaches have a passion for Singapore football — they will come back and give back to the community. Foreign coaches don't have that attachment," said Arasu. "We have to trust in our own people. I think we'd be more successful like that."

Asher Lim, six, trains at ESPZEN academy, a private academy in Singapore where budding footballers can get an early start. PHOTO: Yong Li Xuan

Young players determined

Despite all that stands in the way of pursuing a professional career, some young players here are prepared to go the distance — even at a risk.

Hougang United's Idraki Adnan, 22, said many people had told him football would not be a stable career and that his chances of success were low.

But Idraki, who got his first national team call-up this year, said: "If I'd pursued studies instead, I might have a more stable life, but that's not the life I want."

For Dinie Haikal, 17, who plays for Balestier's Under-17 team, one of his lifelong goals is to realise Singapore's World Cup dream. "I want to be able to represent my country on the world stage."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.