‘Sweet child, where do we go now?’

Posted on June 28, 2011

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They’ve squeezed their faces into the team photos and the credit’s in the bag. Now that the Lion City Cup is over and there aren’t any fans left to wave to, will the top brass of the Football Association of Singapore do right by the U15 and U16 boys?

Or will it be the old story, see you when we see you (just before the next tournament)? Coming up next month is the Asean Football Federation (AFF) U16 championships in Laos. The U15s under Dejan Gluscevic will then look forward to the qualifiers for the Asian Football Confederation U16 Championships 2012. In September, they’ll face North Korea, China, Malaysia, Macau and Timor Leste.

Apart from these two regional tournaments though, the FAS needs to continually provide opportunities for the boys to open their eyes to different styles of football, tougher opponents and challenging playing conditions. That means taking part in tournaments overseas, the way Flamengo, Juventus, Newcastle United and Everton have done this month.

Singapore U16 captain Dhukhilan Jeevamani celebrates after the Lion City Cup semi-final

Singapore U16 captain Dhukhilan Jeevamani celebrates after the Lion City Cup semi-final

Yes, arranging these tours around the boys’ academic schedules will be a challenge. But where there is a will, there is a way, and if you want the likes of Hanafi Akbar, Illyas Lee, Sadik Said and R Aarvin to become exceptional players, you have to invest exceptional effort in them.

The best present these boys can receive now is adversity. Adversity that will shape their mental makeup, condition their game intelligence and nurture their hunger to become elite footballers. The kind of adversity that the Juventus U15s faced at Jalan Besar, when just about every decision seemed to go against them. The lesson that Fabio Gili will learn – not to spike the ball in anger and give the referee an opportunity to send you off, harsh decision as it was.

For all that Juventus suffered at the hands of referees this past week, they will undoubtedly become stronger for it. They will have learned that there will be times when the game is unjust, and that in those moments all you can do is keep going.

Hazim Faiz Hassan learned much this week too. Despite finishing joint-topscorer in the Lion City Cup with three goals, he would have been all too aware of the groans of the Jalan Besar crowd each time he spurned a chance. And after the final against Flamengo, Hazim knew the knives were out for him online – he re-Tweeted a number of cutting comments about his performance late into the night.

While these public criticisms will sting the boys, they are something every top footballer faces. Hopefully Hazim and his team-mates will learn that modern footballers have to deal with the spotlight, and that what does not kill you can only make you stronger.

For all of the Juventus coach Ricardo Cavallari’s bombast, he bears the footballing wisdom of a culture attuned to producing talent. The FAS will do well to take note of Cavallari’s words to the Straits Times: “You’ve got to expose your boys to more styles of play in different conditions. For example, it’ll be interesting to see how the Singapore teams fare in cold weather.”

He continued: “There’s some really good individual talent here, like the U16s’ Hanafi and Jonathan Tan. As a whole, the two Singapore teams are still a bit naive, especially in defending. So, there’s plenty more for them to learn. For young footballers, it’s all about playing as many games as you can. Win or lose, you learn a new lesson every 90 minutes.”

Clearly Juventus wanted to expose their boys to Singapore’s hot and humid playing conditions as part of their development. Singaporean players have struggled under adverse weather in recent years and the national team management has learned this the hard way, with the Lions putting up pale, inhibited displays when playing in cold, wet conditions. Painful defeats against Iran and Jordan away, and most recently, the U23s’ 6-0 loss in a friendly game against the Australian U23s are scars of the bitter rain and biting wind.

The tournament experience that the Brazilian, Italian and English boys gained this past week trumps the benefits of month-long training stints the FAS has sent previous teams on in the past. The extended training tours have their purpose, most notably for team-bonding, but the challenging conditions of tournament play condense the lessons of top-level football. The FAS must make more of an effort to enter its youth teams into foreign tournaments.

This comes at a time when the FAS is feeling the pinch financially, having put most of their eggs in the S.League basket by significantly increasing financial disbursements to the clubs. It will be interesting to see if the FAS has the will to find more resources to invest in the Lion City Cup’s second and third-placed teams.

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