Lions reform chases only red herrings

Posted on November 17, 2011

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In football, the road paved with failure more often than not ends up with a few lambs sacrificed on the altar of public opinion. For Singapore, point-less and having scored only one goal in five in the World Cup qualifiers ahead of a dead rubber tie in Arbil, the shout has gone out: heads must roll.

The Lions during their 4-0 loss to China. Photo: fas.org.sg

The response to the 4-0 loss to China at Jalan Besar has been clamourous. Sack the coach, bring back this player and that, bring back the Kallang Roar. Facebook groups, 140 character denunciations, letters to the editor invariably calling for the national team management to go.

Most of the froth came from angry keyboard warriors who had surrendered Jalan Besar to the Chinese supporters hours earlier. Singapore fans – you might not be able to rely on them to fill a 6,000-seater stadium for a World Cup qualifier, but you sure can count on them to express their hurt pride.

The Football Association of Singapore’s top man got in on the action as well. With the air of a US president looking for an external enemy to boost his popularity ratings, Zainudin Nordin hit out at “the shortcoming and the lack of spirit of some of the players to compete at this level of Asian football.”

While it may well be time for fresh ideas at the helm, with Radojko Avramovic just short of a decade in charge of the Lions, the convenient atmosphere of the witch-hunt means that it’s likely Singapore football will see short-term change, while the very real, long-term problems are once again brushed over.

Perhaps it’s the lack of a sense of history, or the fact that an intellectual culture of honest analysis and problem-solving has never quite taken root in Singapore football. While players are often accused of playing to the gallery, the game’s administrators have been equally guilty of taking decisions with public relations in mind, rather than for the development of the game. Or perhaps those in power who do see that Singapore’s problems lie deeper are too jaded to effect real change.

Here’s the thing. Since falling participation in the game from the 1980s resulted in the natural reservoir of talent being steadily drained, the FAS’ developmental schemes have failed to make up for the loss of talent. The National Football Academy, instituted more than a decade ago, has not yet produced a player capable of troubling the best in Asia.

Can we really expect the NFA to produce top-class talent the way it operates? The NFA U16 team, the blue-eyed boys of the nation after their exploits in the Youth Olympics Games in 2010, have been in regular training for less than six months this year. During the school holidays, our national U16 players have spent more time working holiday jobs than in NFA training. Their regular sparring opponents for the friendly matches that are supposed to aid their development? The NFA U15 team.

The NFA has not produced the goods, and neither has the S.League. As long as Singapore football’s talent pipeline remains broken, it will always be an uphill struggle for the Lions.

China do not count themselves within the top echelon of Asian football, but the way they moved the ball around the Lions on Tuesday made them appear like world champions Spain themselves, rather than just a team with a US$8-million-a-year Spanish coach. And it wasn’t a case of “indifference” or a “lack of spirit” no matter what the Straits Times or the FAS president says – it wasn’t a lack of determination that left Singapore humbled, in the words of the newspaper, but the simple fact that our players were technically and tactically inferior to the Chinese.

The FAS’ preferred mode of operation over the last decade, the importation of foreign talent into the national team, will narrow the gap a little. But the over-reliance on foreign talent is no long-term solution and brings the risk of division – if the FAS hasn’t yet noticed, rifts are beginning to grow between local-born players and foreign-born ones, fueled by those who would convince the local-born players that they are being marginalised.

The short answer to Singapore football’s malaise is a long-term vision. The type of plan that Japan began in the late 1960s, that took them over two decades to reap the fruits of a long-term development. Yes, it will take plenty of resources, and what Japan spent to get to where they are is not a viable option for Singapore. But it can be done, with will and a long-term vision.

The sad thing for Singapore is, the odds of a long-term vision crystalising are long-shot ones at best. Here’s what’s likely to happen: the coach will be sacrificed, along with a number of players. Big-name players with more or less the same levels of talent may be brought back, in a game of musical chairs. The Singapore Lions will be back in the Malaysia Cup circus next year, and the outraged fans calling for blood will be appeased by victories over the likes of Terengganu and Johor FC. The Lions will be rajas of the kampung again, and all will be well.

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