For club and country

Posted on July 1, 2011

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In this modern football age, club versus country tussles for the use of players are a fact of life. In Singapore however, these conflicts take on a twist. Here it’s league versus country as the national interest goes up against the S.League’s integrity.

If that sounds a little contradictory, it’s because these issues are as mixed up as your neighbourhood coffeeshop rojak and wrapped together tighter than bak zhang. Surely it is the case that a strong, competitive S.League will produce better players for the national team? But what if the S.League isn’t quite stepping up to the plate at the moment? Whose interest takes priority then?

At the heart of the issue is the Young Lions’ recent move to recruit a host of players from other S.League clubs in mid-season. They include Shahdan Sulaiman (Tampines Rovers), Nigel Navin Vanu (Woodlands Wellington), Emmeric Ong (Hougang United) and Ruzaini Zainal (SAFFC).

Shahdan Sulaiman at the 2009 SEA Games

Shahdan Sulaiman at the 2009 SEA Games

The move is clearly in the national interest. The Young Lions are not bringing these players in in a bid to win the S.League title, but to prepare a cohesive squad for the South-East Asian (SEA) Games in Indonesia at the end of the year.

The target there is at least a silver, and the national team management does need to strengthen the U23s – they have six players due for national service this year, including the captain Hariss Harun. Another 13 Young Lions are already in full-time national service, which means that their training time is limited.

The Young Lions’ right to draft in these players is ironclad – a section of the S.League’s constitution states that clubs must release players for national commitments. All the clubs can do in this case is to negotiate for a better deal, like how Tampines are trying to keep playmaker Shahdan in a yellow jersey until just before the SEA Games. The efforts of Stags coach Steven Tan are likely doomed to failure; if the national team management allows Shahdan to stay at Tampines, why should the other clubs release their players?

While these transfers are obviously in the national team’s interests, they also machine gun little holes into the competitiveness and prestige of the S.League. Previously sitting pretty atop the S.League and unbeaten after 13 games, Tampines have been knocked off their perch after a number of injury blows. The departure of Shahdan, their creative force in midfield this term, could be the nail in the coffin of their title hopes. Woodlands meanwhile will miss Vanu, a bright young striker in a side which had scored just nine goals by July, 18 games in.

The Young Lions recruitment drive could end up having a major say in the destination of the S.League title this season. These moves also distort the competition, changing the fortunes of clubs and laying them hostage to a higher cause. They certainly don’t advance the cause of the S.League, still struggling to establish itself after 16 years.

While they are victims of a sort in this case, the nine local clubs who feature Singaporean players should take a hard look at themselves. Do we really need to choose between the good of the league and the good of the national team? National coaches in most countries only bring their squads together a month before international tournaments, two would be a hard-earned luxury. Why does the national team management in Singapore feel the need to assemble the team four months before the SEA Games?

Simple answer – the national team coach doesn’t have confidence in the training regimes of the clubs. Too often in the past, players have struggled in the first week or two of national team camps, because they don’t train at the same intensity throughout the season. When he gets his players together, the national coach should be working on the finer tactical details – not on fitness and technical basics.

If the S.League clubs were to maintain training schedules that better prepare players for high-level competition, perhaps the national coach will not feel compelled to call up their players in mid-season. Now that would be a win-win situation, for league and country.

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