SINGAPORE — Amid public scepticism after years of underachievement in international football, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) is launching an ambitious national project to rebuild the sport's foundation into one that can translate into eventual national-team success.
Under the tagline "Unleash the Roar", FAS – with the support of Sport Singapore (SportSG) – presented a detailed masterplan during a media conference at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday (9 March), which maps out its intention to return the Lions to international prominence.
Some of the initiatives within the masterplan include: increasing children and youth football participation in schools; scouting and developing talented players; raising the coaching standards; and strengthening of the Singapore Premier League.
The project, which was first mooted in August 2019, will have an "aspiration milestone" to gauge its success – qualifying for the 2034 World Cup Finals with the local ecosystem producing the bulk of talents in the senior national team.
"This project will go a long way for Singapore to revitalise the systems, structures and support for football. This is not only a worthwhile project, but also a necessary one – one that will provide focus for a long-term journey," said SportSG chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin.
"To rally thousands upon thousands of individuals to come together, to work hard and consistently and pull in the same direction, is no easy feat. But a project like this focuses attention, and I believe that if we communicate, engage and believe together as one, great things can happen."
Lessons from Goal 2010
This is not the first time Singapore has embarked on an ambitious national initiative to galvanise success in football, one of the most widely-played sports in the country.
In 1998, then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong set the "Goal 2010" initiative in a bid to propel the Lions to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals. But while Singapore found some regional success amid the Goal 2010 push, winning the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship four times, it could not make the step up to reach the Asian Cup and the World Cup Finals.
FAS president Lim Kia Tong acknowledged during Tuesday's media conference that Goal 2010 did not reach its intended goal, but insisted that this current project has different objectives and gauges of success than its predecessor.
"Looking back at Goal 2010, it was primarily driven at implementing high-performance fixes, and having the sole objective of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup Finals," he said.
"'Unleash the Roar' will be grounded in the longer-term sustainability of our football ecosystem. The focus will be on improving overall standards in key aspects of the ecosystem, and through that, we aim to achieve outcome and success well beyond (the 2034 World Cup)."
Eight pillars for success
The national project will be divided into three phases. The first phase, from 2021 to 2022, will seek to establish all conditions to increase participation at the base of the pyramid. This includes the National Curriculum, participation in schools, implementation of 10-15 School Football Academies and scholarship programmes.
The second phase, from 2023 to 2027, will implement the project based on eight pillars:
Let Them Play: FAS will establish a standardised National Football Curriculum to be adopted by football co-curricular activities in primary schools, and increase the number of qualified football coaches in schools. The curriculum will also be made accessible to all public and private football clubs and academies.
Let Them Soar: In partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE), School Football Academies (SFAs) with enhanced coaching support will be established in selected secondary schools. An elite youth league will be organised to grow more opportunities at different ability levels.
Scholarships: SportSG will explore partnering overseas football academies with links to professional football clubs that offer a concurrent academic track. FAS could also attract the academies of top European clubs to Singapore.
National Service (NS): FAS and SportSG will work with Ministry of Defence to tap support avenues for eligible footballers, including early enlistment, leave and time-off for national servicemen to train in the sport, as well as opportunities to continue training and playing at top levels while fulfilling their NS obligations.
Enhanced technical capacity and capability: SportSG and FAS will raise the overall capabilities of coaches, all of whom will be trained to teach the National Football Curriculum. They will also establish scouting and talent identification networks locally and overseas, and link up local talents with overseas clubs for high-quality developmental opportunities.
Science and technology: The project will adopt a technology-rich and data-driven approach to raise the performance of athletes and sharpen talent identification and tracking.
Infrastructure: SportSG will enhance existing infrastructure and maximise playable spaces, so that more can play, and more often.
Whole-of-society partnership: MCCY calls on the support of all Singaporeans to come together to achieve the project's goals of football excellence. It hopes Singaporeans will cheer on the Lions, and unite behind them in their matches. It encourages corporations to step forward with their resources.
Finally, Phase 3 of the project – from 2028 to 2033 – will see a concerted push towards qualification for the 2034 World Cup Finals.
"There’s no one single magic bullet that will bring football success. We will need a broad-ranging re-imagination and re-energising of Singapore football to ensure that key aspects are in place for our young ones to be able to rise to a standard that can bring consistent sustainable success,” said FAS deputy president Bernard Tan.
“Each pillar has a critical role to play in our reimagined ecosystem so that football can bring success and pride to Singapore well beyond 2034.”
Public support needed
Yet, despite football's popularity in Singapore, support for the national team has waned in recent years.
Since their last AFF Championship triumph in 2012, the Lions have floundered badly. They have failed to qualify for the semi-finals of every AFF Cup tournament since 2012, and have repeatedly come up empty in their quest for a first SEA Games football gold medal.
With the public uncertain – even cynical – about the Lions' chances of even regaining their past glories, how will the FAS and SportSG convince them to buy in to this national project to build a viable foundation for another shot at the World Cup Finals?
"The desire to play football among the children is high. What we are trying to convince their parents is that we have a good-quality, holistic football program," said Lim Teck Yin.
"There is a pathway, a structure and a system that will be in place, so that the parents can understand and see what opportunities exist for the children.
"We must continue to make sure that their journey is worthwhile."
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