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Commentary: Singapore football SEA Games disaster - how did things go so wrong?

After the SEA Games debacle, the Football Association of Singapore has a duty to answer questions and make bold changes, says CNA’s Stanley Ho.

Commentary: Singapore football SEA Games disaster - how did things go so wrong?

Singapore and Malaysia players in their SEA Games football match on May 11, 2023. (Photo: Facebook/Football Association of Malaysia).

SINGAPORE: Singapore football’s latest SEA Games debacle made for grim viewing.

It took some perverse courage to watch it all in one sitting, with frowns and winces accompanying every Malaysian attack on Singapore’s goal. That’s around 140 times in 90-plus minutes, if you care to know.

There were several hands-on-head moments that provoked silent curses under one’s breath so that, well, one didn't disturb the peace of a newsroom. That happened during the 35 times Malaysia popped a shot at the Singapore goalkeeper. Fourteen of those were on target. Singapore had none, by the way.

The final count was a mortifying 7-0 defeat. Singapore were utterly outplayed and humiliated in every department by their fiercest rivals. It left the Young Lions rooted to the bottom of the group with just a draw and three defeats in Phnom Penh. It’s been 10 years since the men’s team made it to the knockout stages - and counting.

The funny thing was, fans had seen it coming.

Consider this: The bulk of this SEA Games squad was from the Young Lions team plying their trade in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). This season, they are bottom of the pile with just one win in nine games. There were two encouraging draws and six defeats - not to mention a goal difference of minus 12.

In the previous season, the team had finished bottom of the league with just two wins from 28 matches. They conceded a whopping 103 goals that term. Lest one thinks it’s a freak season, they finished among the bottom three for each of the past nine years.

You get the gist. The Young Lions are not very good. But are the players to be blamed?


We have to ask ourselves: What do we really expect from players who have had limited preparation and exposure to top-level competition the past year? Is playing together in the domestic league considered adequate preparation, especially when one considers that the final SEA Games squad included a few players from other clubs who will have had limited time training alongside their teammates.

The team’s only proper get-together for the SEA Games was over three days in late March’s Merlion Cup. The Young Lions played two games in the friendly quadrangular at Jalan Besar Stadium and lost both - to Hong Kong (0-1) and Cambodia (1-2). In contrast, Cambodia went on three overseas training camps since February. And Myanmar reportedly held training camps in Thailand in March.

Can we really expect the Young Lions to suddenly pull up trees at regional level, and perform giant-killing acts in unfamiliar cavernous arenas, when they were ill-prepared for battle?

Athletes can only do what they’ve been conditioned to do. High-performing athletes not only prepare themselves physically, but also mentally. Many crave victories like a drug. The euphoria is addictive, adds to confidence, and the desire of having that “winning feeling” propels elite athletes to greater heights, so that they can taste it again.

Losing sometimes can build character and foster a siege mentality within a team, which can be valuable when the chips are down. However, prolonged exposure to defeats can have a debilitating effect.

Chelsea’s struggles in the English Premier League after a long winless streak, despite assembling a star-studded squad, is testament to that. It drains confidence and self-belief, and perpetuates self-doubt. Is there any wonder that a season-and-a-half of constant losses in the SPL would have a negative effect on the psyche of the Young Lions, as the only thing they’ve learnt so far is how to lose?

And when they do lose, who do they seek guidance from? The Young Lions are made up of players under the age of 24. There are no senior players among them who have the experience, leadership and know-how to guide them out of a vortex of perpetual failures. So they keep losing, drowning in this unending whirlpool of defeats, with no lifebuoy in sight. When and where do they actually learn how to win?

Speaking of learning, how are the Young Lions developed during this crucial formative stage of their playing careers? Over the past 20 years, this country had experimented with football philosophies that traversed continents - first Danish, then Belgian, Australian and now English. Which playing style and tactics are the players schooled in? Which is most suited to them, playing to their strengths? Do they actually know?


After all that, comes the big question: Who put these young players in this predicament in the first place?

As the governing body of local football, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has plenty to answer. It has a duty to explain how it had taken the Young Lions to the bottom of the valley. It must have the integrity to come clean on what went wrong, and be upfront on the measures it intends to take moving forward.

It must justify its sporting and management decisions so far, and be prepared to admit it may have been wrong all along.

It cannot regurgitate the oft-repeated line that patience is needed for youth development, and Singapore are on the right track with the latest football excellence master plan, Unleash The Roar. The fans have heard that for over two decades, the failed Goal 2010 project still fresh on their minds.

The FAS must have the courage to make sweeping changes to the status quo, both on and off the pitch. For a start, should we disband the Young Lions in the local league, release these youngsters back to the SPL clubs, so they can learn from seasoned professionals?

More importantly, who among the FAS leadership will take responsibility for the failings?

That’s accountability.

More than just better players, this is what Singapore football really needs now.

Stanley Ho is a senior editor at CNA. He has been covering Singapore sports for more than 20 years.

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Source: CNA/aj


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