The youth development system for football in Singapore is set for a radical change next year, and it could hit the size of the talent pool.
In a bid to improve the development of talent and align the style of play with national coach Bernd Stange's vision for the national team, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has introduced stringent criteria for the Centres of Excellence (COE) programme run by S-League clubs from next season.
Eight clubs currently have COEs, but The New Paper understands that only three - Warriors FC, Home United and Balestier Khalsa - are set to apply to run them next year.
The rest will almost certainly cease operations because they cannot meet the requirements.
Speaking to TNP on condition of anonymity, one COE coach said: "In the current system, there are a total of 24 teams across the clubs' COEs, but the new one will see just 18 teams.
"We already have a small talent pool, and this will mean that six squads' worth of players will stop getting a proper football education - and this can't be good for Singapore football."
From now, a club that want to run a COE must have a minimum of three training pitches, including one with floodlights - a critical factor that has ruled out several clubs.
Another requirement is that the age-group teams must stretch from the previous three (under-14, under-16 and under-18) to six (under-13 through to under- 18).
They must also be backed by support staff that includes sports trainers as well as specialist fitness and goalkeeper coaches.
The three clubs that will now run COEs will work closely with the FAS, who will monitor the progress of the new development system.
Responding to TNP's queries on Wednesday, an FAS spokesman said: "FAS has been studying various possibilities relating to the enhancement of our current COE structure for the past one year, and we have since decided on one model which will be introduced under the next phase of our strategy aimed at enhancing the development of our young players.
"More resources, both on and off-the- pitch, will be channelled to the new model. Other details pertaining to the new model will be announced after they have been finalised by FAS and the clubs."
Even with the reduction of the number of clubs running COEs, Balestier chairman S Thavaneson believes the new model will improve the system.
"The FAS and clubs have invested a lot into the COE system, but the critical problems we have faced in the past were pitches and coaches.
"This proposed move will help Singapore football development move forward in unison, along with the FAS strategic plan," he told TNP.
The COE programme was launched in 2000.
The FAS has continued to provide subsidies for clubs to run COEs, with the amount increasing from around $102,000 in the early years to $110,000 this year.
Veteran football administrator Thavaneson said the support from the FAS will be critical for the new system to work.
"FAS technical director Slobodan Pavkovic is in charge of this and the project will get a lot of support from the FAS," said Thavaneson, whose club will submit an application to run a COE next year.
"I've been in football a long time, and this bold and innovative move, I think, is a positive one."
Facilities and funding were the two major issues clubs have had with the COE system in the past, and a few decided not to run them at various times.
In 2006, facing similar problems as well as moonlighting coaches, the FAS centralised the COE system and it came under their direct management in 2008.
The programme was decentralised the following year and FAS did not respond to TNP queries over the reasons for the U-turn.
With the strict criteria, the new COE system could well mirror the previous centralised programme.
Five-time S-League champions Tampines Rovers will not run a COE from next year.
When contacted, chairman Teo Hock Seng said: "We've always supported the COE programme at Tampines Rovers and as I understand it, the FAS wants to take back the responsibility of running COEs, and it is not something I have an issue with.
"Pulling together resources, they could perhaps do a better job with it."
Get The New Paper for more stories.