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Singapore football chief Zainudin Nordin tells Yahoo! Singapore that he is still in the midst of rebuilding the national team. He added that when it comes to coach Radojko Avramovic's future, he prefers to go the "Manchester United" way.
More than a year after the national football team was disbanded following its disastrous showing in the 2010 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin said the "rebuilding job is still in progress".
Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore in an exclusive interview, Zainudin revealed that when he made the decision to cull the team last year, his intention was to send a clear message to the squad.
"I wanted to tell the players that they are not automatic choices. Nobody has the right to be a national player. Selection for the national team must be based on merit as well as passion and pride to play for our nation," the Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC said.
Accompanied by FAS secretary-general Winston Lee and S.League CEO Lim Chin, Zainudin was mostly candid during the one-hour interview at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Even when the conversation strayed to difficult topics, such as the 1-7 mauling the Lions suffered at the hands of Iraq in the third round qualifier of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Asian Zone last month, the affable man did not flinch.
Sounding sombre when asked about his thoughts on the Lions' performance during the qualifying campaign, Zainudin said: "The team met our target of reaching the third round of the qualifiers again after doing it for the 2010 World Cup. But we know that playing against the top 20 teams in Asia is tough and the next step is to expose the team to a higher level of competition and continue with our investment in our youth teams starting with our Junior COEs (centres of excellence) for the Under-8, Under-10 and Under-12 players."
For the record, the Lions finished bottom of their group, losing all six games, scoring just twice and conceding 20 goals.
While Zainudin said the team achieved its set target, he acknowledged that fans have every right to be upset with the results.
"Whatever they are thinking, we are thinking the same. We are disappointed with the results and we agree that there is much room for improvement in the team's performances," he insisted.
However, he added that it is not all doom and gloom for the Lions - and the future of Singapore football. Referring to his rebuilding vision, he pointed out: "In the match against Iraq, we exposed some of the younger players such as Delwinder Singh to a high level of football. So from a developmental perspective, we can be cautiously optimistic."
The FAS top men were adamant that playing the likes of Delwinder against Iraq has its benefits, even as coach Radojko Avramovic lamented that unavailability of usual first-teamers such as Hariss Harun due to national service commitments during the dead rubber match.
S.League supremo Lim described it as a "glass half-full or half-empty" situation and added that the FAS prefer to take a long-term view and dwell on the positives.
Following the Iraq debacle, many fans were also calling for Avramovic's head. And while the FAS top brass did promise a review of the team's and coach's performances in the aftermath of the disastrous showing, they steadfastly refused to reveal if the coach will be given the boot.
FAS secretary-general Lee pointed out that a report will be submitted to Zainudin and the FAS executive committee next month (April) before anything is decided.
Lee would only say that the FAS will take a decision that is in the best interest of Singapore football when pressed further. the fans when pressed further.
On rumours that the coach will be axed if the team fails to do well in November's Suzuki Cup, Lee again played it coy. "Let's take one step at a time," he said.
Zainudin, though, added tellingly: "Do we want to go the Chelsea's hire-and-fire way or do it like Manchester United where Alex Ferguson has been there for so long even though he did not win anything during the early years of his reign.
"There is no right or wrong way of doing things and instead of getting carried away and going with all the popular demands, we have to be rational and always do what is right for our game."
While Avramovic's lot is still shrouded in mystery, Zainudin was more willing to discuss the future of Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad.
Now serving as technical advisor and manager to Malaysian state team Johor FA, Fandi made known his unhappiness with the way FAS treated him before inking his current three-year deal.
Admitting that "we felt a bit hurt" over the former national striker's comments, the FAS chief said "I personally engaged Fandi from October to December last year" and added: "There were real and concrete offers made to him."
Lee revealed that the last offer - as assistant to Avramovic - was made after the initial outburst, but Fandi turned it down.
Still, Zainudin said his door will always be open to arguably Singapore's most famous footballer.
In the meantime, all three men pledged to continue to do their best to improve the fortune of Singapore football by reviving the S.League and thereby increasing the pool of players available for selection.
And they may well have to do it on the "cheap".
Recent media reports have put the FAS' annual operating budget at $8 million, a far fry from Malaysia's and Indonesia's $50 million and Asian powerhouse Japan's $200 million.
Lee admitted that having more financial muscle is helpful but is adamant that Singapore will look at ways to overcome the lack of it.
"Unlike other FAs, we have a limited budget and must always exercise financial prudence in everything we do. For example, instead of sending our youth teams for overseas training stints, we will arrange for them to play against older teams here first," he said.
As he uttered these words, the three men got up from their seats and left for another meeting, possibly to chart the future of Singapore football.
What is your take on the current state of local football?