SINGAPORE: Members of the local footballing fraternity have warned that Benjamin Davis' development could be disrupted by two years of National Service, following news that his application to defer his NS has been rejected.
The 17-year-old midfielder has signed a two-year contract with Fulham, the newly promoted Premier League (EPL) club announced on its website on Friday (Jul 13). Benjamin, the first Singaporean to ink a professional contract with a top-tier English club, turns 18 in November.
Former Hougang United coach Philippe Aw told Channel NewsAsia that if Benjamin has to juggle serving NS and playing football, his growth as a footballer will be hampered.
"It is guaranteed that his development will be curtailed for sure," said Aw.
"It's not easy to serve NS and play football. A young player who trains in Singapore versus a young player who trains in Fulham - it's a big, big difference. The environment here is not positive enough, not challenging enough for a young player to develop faster."
A former Singapore international who declined to be named agreed with Aw.
"This responsibility has always been a hindrance to the development of Singaporean footballers," he said.
The experience of playing abroad is a crucial one for a young player, said Albirex Niigata midfielder Adam Swandi, who spent almost two years at the academy of French club FC Metz.
"It helped me to mature as a player, that was the vital age for me to change from an aspiring player to a professional player," stressed Adam.
He returned home for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games and later served his NS, and said he understands the rationale in having to do so.
"Of course as a footballer, you won't want to waste the two years which could be an important period, but NS is a part (of life) which you cannot escape and there are some positives that you can take away from it," he said.
"There are so many benefits of being a Singaporean - this is part and parcel of life, you have to go through it."
In MINDEF's statement, the ministry said that very few applications have been approved over the years and for sports, deferments are granted to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for the nation.
Only three have met this criteria in the last 15 years - swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, as well as sailor Maximilian Soh.
But Aw believes that the criteria for deferment should also take into account the level of football at which Davis could soon be playing.
"It is a gold medal in football - to play football in the top five leagues in the world," quipped Aw."There's never been a Singaporean who has done this."
Former national coach Vincent Subramaniam, however, disagrees that Benjamin's development could be severely affected.
"The hampering (to his footballing growth) is minimal," he said. "There's definitely a possibility that he can continue to train. Talent doesn't go away, it stays with you."
He pointed to the example of South Korean star Son Heung-Min, who could still have to serve mandatory military service despite being one of the biggest Asian stars in Europe.
"That kind of sacrifice is one that has to be made for the country," insisted Subramaniam, who had several full-time NSmen under his care when he was coach of Singapore Armed Forces FC from 1996 to 1998.
"Ben could find that it might be best to serve NS as early as possible, get it out of the way and then he can pursue his career in football.
"That would be the best option for him, because if he has to serve at the peak of his career, that would be even worse."