Cubs get by on heart

Posted on June 26, 2011

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The Singapore U16s during the Lion City Cup final

The Singapore U16s during the Lion City Cup final

Throughout this Lion City Cup, Hazim Faiz Hassan has been operating on heart. Operating on that extra bit of determination that gets him ahead of his marker. That resolve which gets him in on a defender’s blind side. That desire that turns a half-chance into a goal.

Lacking the guile of Hanafi Akbar or Muhaimin Suhaimi’s eye for goal, the ever-willing Hazim worked doggedly to lead the line. Three goals were his reward, but the Singapore Sports School student might have doubled that tally, had he not passed on a number of gilt-edged chances.

There’s no way you can fault this boy’s effort. And while we groaned as he smashed the ball over Thiago Rodrigues’ bar with only the Flamengo keeper to beat, and nodded wide when presented with a glorious opportunity to settle the final in its dying minutes, you can’t blame Hazim for not being sharper either. Because those responsible for nurturing the talents of Hazim and his team-mates in the Singapore U16 side have let him down.

The U16s captured many hearts at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) last year, and that support was evident at the Jalan Besar Stadium this past week. But how much have the boys improved in the 10 months since the YOG? Certainly not as much as they could have, and it’s not their fault.

Go back to last August. After a bloodied Jeffrey Lightfoot staggered back from hospital to join his team-mates in receiving their bronze medals, after the Football Association of Singapore’s luminaries basked in the reflected glory of the Cubs.

You might have expected that the National Football Academy’s management would push on with this team, ramping up their training and match schedules, making sure the boys were absorbing as much as possible in these formative years. Honing the raw talent apparent during the YOG. Learning the ins and outs of being an elite footballer. Becoming stronger tactically, mentally and physically. But the reality was the team that so many have pinned their hopes on was left to their own devices.

When the boys assembled in April this year to prepare for the Lion City Cup, it was the first time since the YOG that they were training as a team. For eight months, they trained with their respective school teams, rather than under what we may assume are the more sophisticated auspices of the NFA.

The eight Singapore Sports School (SSS) students in Takuma Koga’s squad were training together at the SSS, but what about the nine other players in the squad from other schools? Before April, Ammirul Mazlan was more likely to meet his central midfield partner Fatemy Firdouse at Starbucks rather than at training. Because Ammirul is a Hong Kah Secondary School student and Fatemy is at the Sports School. And the NFA did not bring them together until April.

The NFA will say exams got in the way of regular training. Just like how exams scuppered a proposed trip to Germany, after the president of Bundesliga side Werder Bremen extended a personal invitation. The NFA will say the U16s were without a coach, between Kadir Yahya’s departure in December and Koga’s arrival in April. The NFA will say there was going to be the Asian Schools tournament, and the Schools B Division tournament.

Perhaps exams these days are so demanding that they require eight months’ worth of relentless study. Perhaps there just weren’t any coaches in the NFA who could have taken the team during that time. Perhaps playing against other schools in Singapore is exposure enough. Perhaps it’s just too difficult to secure a field in Singapore. Perhaps the boys will become elite players by imbibing the National Football Syllabus on DVD.

So don’t blame poor Hazim when he directs a header from less than a metre out into the hands of the Everton keeper. Don’t blame Jonathan Tan when he runs down tactical blind alleys, performing multiple step-overs on the road to nowhere. Don’t blame Hanafi Akbar for not having learnt to truly control a game the way his talents deserve. They’ve missed out on the bread and butter of football development, at a crucial stage of their careers.

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