Reporting from Madrid
Deep in the suburbs of Madrid, about 20 young Singapore footballers - aged between 12 and 13 - were put through passing drills in the cool autumn weather, far away from the comforts of their homes last Monday (21 November).
In groups of four, they tried to weave an intricate passing routine to score from just inside the penalty box. On one occasion when they missed, the youngsters giggled and mocked the offending teammate. That caught the attention of the Spanish coach in charge of the drills.
"I hope you will not be laughing when you miss that kind of shot against Atletico Madrid," he said matter-of-factly. Sure enough, the laughter died down as the players became more serious in honing their passes, as they prepared for a friendly match against their counterparts at the famous Spanish club.
These youngsters are the first batch of Singapore youth footballers taking part in a month-long training stint in Spain, as part of a partnership between the "Unleash the Roar!" (UTR) national football project and the newly-formed LaLiga academy.
For the first 18 days of their stint, they trained at the ESC Madrid Village, a new sport excellence centre in the suburbs that houses sports facilities, accommodation and an international school used by both LaLiga and the National Basketball Association (NBA) to groom the next generation of top footballers and basketballers.
Following that, they were split into smaller groups and spent 10 further days training with the youth squads of top LaLiga clubs: Atletico, Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, Alaves and Levante.
This is the first overseas training partnership set up for youth footballers under the UTR project, which was launched in March last year to rebuild Singapore football with a long-term target of national-term success.
UTR's executive committee chairman Eric Chua, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, said this partnership is the first of what he hopes to be a good list of overseas training options for the best youth talents in Singapore to get exposure to higher levels of football.
"We want to find opportunities whereby our young footballers can immerse in a football eco-system where there is high-level planning, playing and training throughout - something which admittedly we can't always get in Singapore," he told Yahoo News Singapore following a visit to the ESC Madrid Village last week to check on the young footballers' progress.
"Eventually we may have medium- or long-term training possibilities abroad with credible partners, sending our best youngsters to months-long or even years-long stints, giving them a holistic training package that includes their academic education. That would be a quick win in our efforts to build up a strong base of talents."
Equal importance placed on football and academia
Opened in July, the ESC Madrid Village offers a serene environment away from the public eye, where young talents can be focused on honing their sporting skills as well as gaining a foothold in their academic progress.
Besides hosting the UTR youth footballers for their training stint, the centre is also the home of the pioneer batch of LaLiga academy trainees. There are 36 of them hailing from 24 countries - including Singapore, as 14-year-old Denzel Ari Thrumurgam was accepted into the academy in August after excelling at trials held in the city-state.
Unlike other football academies which promise that its trainees would "live, breathe and dream" football, the LaLiga academy places an equal importance of the academic progress of the trainees under its wings. They will be given pathways to either the American or the International Baccalaureate education programmes.
"We are very focused on the concept of producing student-athletes," said Francisco Javier Hernandez, LaLiga Grassroots' head of strategy and international development.
"We try to given them all the tools they need to not only become a professional footballer, but also excel in other professions, should they not be able to become a professional player. This is why when we evaluate talents for our academy, we place equal emphasis on their football and academic qualities."
Having welcomed the UTR youth footballers to train at the centre since 5 November, Juan Florit, LaLiga's head of football projects, noted three observations among the Singapore talents - as well as Denzel - as they progress under the academy's training sessions.
"Firstly, as with many talents coming in from Asia, they lack the physical size when compared to trainees from Europe or Africa. Secondly, their decision-making on the pitch - like many of the foreign trainees - needs a lot of improving," Florit said.
"But one quality we find among all Singapore players is that they have a very good capacity to understand concepts very quickly. And so they can improve much faster than many others in the academy."
High spirits despite being away from their families
Despite being away from their family for nearly a month, the UTR youngsters were in high spirits, huddling for a group cheer and doing a small "Mexican Wave" with Chua as they completed their morning training.
They were soon wide-eyed with excitement upon finding out that fledgling 18-year-old Manchester United talent Alejandro Garnacho - who score the stoppage-time winner against Fulham in the Premier League earlier this month - was training by himself at the ESC Madrid Village after not being selected by Argentina for the World Cup Finals in Qatar.
Being immersed in Spain's exceptional youth football culture has been an eye-opener for many of these teenagers, and for 13-year-old winger Muhammad Izzan Akid, it was an experience he is unlikely to forget soon.
"I got to play football every day with my friends, everything here is about football, and I learnt many ways to improve my own skills and combine with my teammates," said the Oasis Primary School student.
"Although I was away from my family, I tried to call them whenever I have my free time. But I enjoyed this training stint a lot, and if there is any future opportunity to do more training here, I would definitely want to come back."
Some of the players' family members flew into Madrid to catch their sons in action against Atletico Madrid's youngsters at the Spanish club's training facility on a chilly Tuesday evening. Chua, together with the Singapore coaches who had accompanied the players during their Madrid stay, also watched the matches from the sidelines.
Even though the Singapore players were playing in the unfamiliar European weather conditions, they showed admirable grit to keep their Spanish opponents at bay, foiling their rivals' waves of attack as they tried hard to build some of their own.
Chua said he is heartened by how the Singapore footballers had stayed positive throughout their stint, despite being far away from home comforts. He is hopeful that the players - and coaches too - can apply what they have learnt in Spain when they return home, and raise the standards of grassroots football in Singapore.
"At the end of the day, it is about levelling up our football standards," he said.
"We want to expand our suite of possibilities available to our young footballers to develop their talents, at home or abroad. We have started our Singapore Football Academies (SFAs) in secondary schools this year, and this overseas training stint is a small step to connect good young players to football around the world.
"It is an indication to young football talents that we are willing to journey with you and help you in your pathway to success."
Two girls' SFAs to be introduced next year
The UTR! project also announced that two girls’ SFAs will be introduced for the first time next year.
Woodlands Secondary School will have a football programme for its students, while Methodist Girls’ School will partner with Boon Lay Secondary School and Westwood Secondary School for the programme.
There will be a total of 12 SFAs in 2023, of which 10 will have SFA programmes for boys. Over 550 male and female footballers aged 13 to 16 are expected to be on the SFA programmes next year. This is an increase from the 300 youths in the pilot SFA programme launched this year.
Apart from participating in the National School Games, the SFAs will also compete in inter-SFA tournaments next year.
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