Gloom at the NFA

Posted on September 15, 2011

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The Singapore U18s at the AFF U19 championships in Myanmar. Photo: http://www.fas.org.sg

‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Will the Lions’ 6-4 aggregate win over Malaysia in July’s World Cup qualifier prove to be a desperate, final flourish – the closing of Singapore’s dominant chapter in the Causeway rivalry?

Given that Radojko Avramovic’s men had the better of the Malaysians at both Jalan Besar and Bukit Jalil, one might be inclined to dismiss such worries as doom-mongering. Or premature agonising over Singapore’s talent production line, given Avramovic’s knack for spotting diamonds in the rough.

But an implacable logic remains – if the talent stream from the National Football Academy (NFA) dips in quality, the senior national team suffers the consequences in the future. And the signs are not looking good.

On Tuesday, the national U18 team went down 6-0 to Malaysia in the Asean Football Federation U19 Championship, having needed an 84th minute equaliser to draw 1-1 with the Philippines (a team of mostly 17-year-olds) in their first match. They then drew 1-1 with Cambodia, virtually ending their faint hopes of qualifying from the group stages. Did the frankly humiliating defeat to the Harimau Muda B ring alarm bells within the NFA?

The former Malaysia Cup-winning coach Jita Singh, now senior head of game development at the Football Association of Singapore, gave a response designed to placate. “All tournaments and matches at the youth level are to give the boys more exposure, which will help them in the development process. As always, we will analyse their performances after the tournament and seek further improvements,” he told The New Paper.

The U18s under coach Akbar Abdul Nawas play in the Prime League, the Harimau Muda play in Malaysia’s second-tier Premier League. The Premier League is a better quality of competition than the Prime League, essentially the S.League’s reserve competition. It may be worth the NFA honchos considering if the U18s’ participation in the Prime League serves their development better than say, a well-planned year-long schedule of training tours and overseas competitions.

Speaking of overseas competitions, Akbar said after the hammering by the Malaysians that the AFF tournament was their first taste of international football this year. That’s a shocking indictment of the developmental plan for the U18s, which are the feeder squad for the Young Lions. How are the boys going to gain the exposure Jita spoke of, if we only move out of our kampong once or twice a year when Asian Football Confederation (AFC) or AFF tournaments swing by?

The 6-0 loss to the Malaysians is not by itself a reason for major concern. Fluke results do happen, especially in youth football. But the beating the U18s took in Myanmar is the latest of a series of disheartening signs that the NFA is not producing the players to match Singapore’s footballing ambitions.

From 2005, when the Malaysian U18s under K. Rajagobal defeated Singapore U18 to lift the Lion City Cup, the Malaysian youths have been moving ahead. The likes of Safiq Rahim, Aidil Zafuan Radzak and Asraruddin Putra are among seven players from that Malaysia U18 team to make it to their senior national team; from the Singapore squad, only Shahdan Sulaiman has been capped.

Many in Singapore were surprised at the technical and physical superiority of the Malaysian players in 2005; that trend has continued at age-group level. With the benefit of more hours of training and more foreign exposure, the Malaysian boys have had a jump on their Singaporean counterparts.

At senior level, the Lions were able to best Malaysia through Avramovic’s tactical nous, the use of foreign-born talent and the sheer determination of the players. How long will we be able to rely on these factors though, if the technical development of our players continues to be stunted?

After the quartet of Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan, Hassan Sunny and Ridhuan Muhammed made it to the senior national team in 2003, hopes were high that the NFA would provide a steady, ever-improving stream of talent for the Lions. In the eight years since though, the NFA has produced only two players of Asian-level quality – Khairul Amri and Hariss Harun. With that sort of record, Singapore will not just be behind the top sides in Asia – we’ll be behind in the region as well.

There is hope – the U15s and the U16s shone at the Lion City Cup this year. In particular, the U15s showed a quick-passing, technical game that left fans eager to follow the next stage of their development. While the U18s have struggled in Myanmar, the U15s have had a more encouraging set of results at the qualifiers for the AFC U16 championship in North Korea. They went down 3-1 to China in their first game after going into the break at 1-1, and in their second almost held the hosts and reigning AFC U16 champions North Korea before succumbing to an 89th minute goal.

They have lost the coach who has done much to shape their game since last year though – Serbian Dejan Gluscevic will take on the job at Indonesian giants Persija Jakarta after the AFC qualifiers. The FAS now has to replace the one outstanding coach in the NFA over the past two seasons.

Not only that – they have to provide a better developmental plan for the U15s than the one the U18s stuttered through. If things remain status quo at the NFA, Singapore football will go gentle into that good night.

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