COMMENT: FAS has its work cut out to woo sceptical public and make football project a success

SINGAPORE — When I first started out as a sports journalist in November 2002, part of my ambition was to be the reporter to bring back news of the Singapore national football team finally qualifying for the 2010 World Cup Finals.

Within a month, that idealism was shattered at the old National Stadium, where the Lions – hyped up as formidable contenders for the regional AFF Championship – crashed 0-4 at the hands of arch-rivals Malaysia.

That defeat was probably the first sign that, despite the best intentions of the Goal 2010 national football initiative, the road to success in football is never guaranteed, never smooth-sailing.

The Lions had a reputable coach in Denmark's Jan Poulsen; they had a 45,000-strong crowd at the National Stadium; and they had budding players (Aide Iskandar, Goh Tat Chuan, Noh Alam Shah and Indra Sahdan Daud) who were complemented by foreign talents Daniel Bennett, Egmar Goncalves and Mirko Grabovac. On paper, it was a blend for success.

Except it wasn't. Shock at the humiliating home defeat turned into anger as the Lions crashed out of the tournament in the opening stage. Poulsen resigned, while the value of the foreign talent scheme was repeatedly questioned among the football fraternity.

And while the Lions managed to find regional success in the ensuing years – such as the exhilarating highs of clinching the 2004, 2007 and 2012 AFF Championships – they just could not press on towards the next level, and the Goal 2010 ambition died quietly in 2008 when Singapore failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals. A generation of football talents, while hardly a failure, could not overachieve and reach the heady heights fans had longed for.

Singapore's players react after losing to Malaysia at the 2014 Suzuki Cup group stage.
Singapore's players react after losing to Malaysia at the 2014 Suzuki Cup group stage. (PHOTO: Reuters/Edgar Su) (Edgar Su / reuters)

Ambitious undertaking with potential pitfalls

And now, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) – together with the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) as well as Sport Singapore (SportSG) – wants the public to again support a national football project, one that will rebuild the foundations of the sport and bolster the national team for future international success.

It is an ambitious undertaking, and unlike the Goal 2010 initiative – which banked on a short-term influx of foreign talents to succeed – this project seeks to groom local talents from young, giving them viable pathways to become top footballers, and offering a unified playing philosophy that would see them through to the senior national team gunning for glory.

And then there's the all-important target. FAS insists that qualifying for the 2034 World Cup Finals – where Asia could have as many as eight nations to make up the expanded 48-team format – is merely an "aspirational milestone" to gauge the project's success, and that the project will continue after the sport's most prestigious tournament is over.

It is a sound plan, encompassing every aspect of a young footballer's career and supporting every step of his journey. If executed properly, it will definitely lift the standards of the national men's and women's teams, both of which have floundered in the past decade.

Yet it is also a project riddled with potential pitfalls that could seriously derail its ambition, and deepen the public scepticism on Singapore ever becoming a regional football powerhouse, despite the sport's immense popularity in the country.

Usual barriers to success remain

For one, the usual barriers of academia and national service remain.

The majority of parents in Singapore prefer their kids to excel in academia, giving them a myriad of career options in the future. Furthermore, even if parents were to support the ambition of their kids to embark on a football career, national service at the kids' prime ages for sporting development would place doubts on whether the kids could ever reach their fullest footballing potential.

The FAS' solution is to engage the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defence to work out compromises and minimise disruption. They include working with Singapore Sports School to ensure the football talents do not neglect their academic pursuits; looking at early national-service enlistments; and getting approval to train during their national service periods.

All good, but doubts linger – can a project which seeks to lift Singapore football out of the doldrums even afford to have such distractions? Will the talents lose focus amid all their academic and national-service responsibilities? Will the compromises be good enough to groom the talents to outperform the likes of their regional full-time counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam?

Questions, questions

Then there is the intention of having a unified playing style, taught and refined from youth to senior levels, and in all private-run and government-run football academies.

It is a move probably influenced by the success of Spain in the late 2000s and early 2010s. With the country's top clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid training their youth prospects in the famous "tiki-taka" football style – patient passing with high-intensity pressing – the perennially-underachieving Spanish national team reaped the rewards by having a top-class side to win the World Cup for the first time in history in 2010, as well as two European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012.

And now the FAS wishes to transplant this method of sustainable success here, via a National Football Curriculum that would run through all its strands of football coaching – in school football, in ActiveSG football academies, in privately-run academies, and in the various Singapore Premier League clubs.

That takes a lot of convincing of the stakeholders to revamp their coaching curriculums into one style, in which FAS has already identified as "high-tempo and possession-based". Will everyone be convinced? What if this style of football requires physical and technical attributes which may be tough to inculcate among young local talents? Is there a fall-back plan should such a football style fail to take root?

Questions, more questions.

Singapore national striker Ikhsan Fandi (right) celebrates with his teammates during the AFF Suzuki Cup tournament in 2018
Singapore national striker Ikhsan Fandi (right) celebrates with his teammates during the AFF Suzuki Cup tournament in 2018. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images) (Suhaimi Abdullah via Getty Images)

Sceptical public could derail support for project

Yet, the biggest question surrounding this national project is also the most obvious: will it gain enough public support?

This is a massive undertaking, requiring the support of so many different agencies, partners and communities. And even if FAS, SportSG and MCCY somehow manage to garner such support, will the sceptical public bite?

Let's make no bones about this: while Singaporeans love to watch and play football, they don't necessarily support the national team these days.

Manchester United easily filled the 55,000-seat National Stadium with fans during the 2019 International Champions Cup, but the Lions managed just over 30,000 fans at the cavernous venue when they faced Indonesia at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup. And while a huge swathe of fans follow the English Premier League religiously every week, you would be hard-pressed to find as many keeping tabs on the Singapore Premier League.

Why? Because the Lions have disappointed them more than elated them in the past decade. When they last won a major trophy – the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup – they have promised to build on that triumph for more success. Not only did they not add to their silverware, but they have also floundered badly – losing in the opening rounds, playing dour football, and delivering far less than what they promised at the SEA Games and the Suzuki Cups.

And so the public mood in 2021 is far more cynical than those heady days when Singapore won their first AFF Championship in 1998, or even their final one in 2012. Once bitten, twice shy – in the case of the Lions, fans have already been bitten more than once.

It would be a monumental task just for FAS to convince the public to go along with this current project, when its track record is less than stellar.

Then, to convince youngsters to dedicate a large chunk of their lives to the sport – when they have far more distractions in this day and age – would also take some deft persuasion.

Finally, getting doubting parents on board – when they have already witnessed so much underachievement in the last decade – would be another tricky proposition.

Do FAS, SportSG or MCCY have enough in their tanks to overcome these formidable road bumps? Would the coaches, technical directors and board members press on should the Lions suffer agonising tournament exits or fail to qualify for the World Cup Finals? What if crowds fail to materialise even when the Lions are improving?

Would there be a collective will to press on despite the public indifference?

Owning the solution to local football's woes

To be fair, this football project is necessary to restore the respectability of Singapore football after years of drifting aimlessly. In fact, it should have begun right after the unsuccessful Goal 2010 bid, so that Singapore could have a new objective to aim for – and not be stuck in a rut.

And, you'll never know, with the right talent, the right coaches and the right attitude, reaching the expanded World Cup Finals is a tantalising prospect. You only need to be the eighth-best team in Asia in 2034, not the top four as it is currently.

And, like SportSG chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin said during the unveiling of the project on Tuesday (9 March), "We must own our solution." After years of the public complaining about how bad Singapore football is, there should be a collective desire to improve and not let it get even worse.

Yet, FAS has chosen to begin the project at an inopportune time, with public support at a low. That makes it far harder to succeed than, say, if it starts the project after the Lions had won a trophy. The Lions' regional triumph in 2012 could have been the springboard.

It has come up with a sound plan. Now it must be ready to see it through despite all the operational difficulties and potential setbacks. It must be ready to pump in enough financial support, even if there is no guarantee of dividends. Most of all, it must overcome the deeply-entrenched public apathy, which is bound to be a dampener to its cause.

This journalist will be close to retirement age by the time the 2034 World Cup Finals comes around. Could he finally fulfil his ambition of bringing back news of the Lions' World Cup qualification?

Like the FAS national football project, fulfilment is a distant prospect. It's up to Singapore football to prove the public wrong and celebrate its ultimate goal.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 18-plus years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.

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