SINGAPORE: Qualification for the 2034 World Cup remains an "aspirational target" for Singapore and it will not determine whether the new national project to grow local football is a success, said Football Association of Singapore (FAS) deputy president Bernard Tan on Tuesday (Mar 9).
Speaking at a press conference to present the various initiatives of the project, Mr Tan said that its success goes beyond the goal of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup.
"If we can grow an ecosystem, if we can get fans coming to watch the game, parents very interested, if we can raise the level of our game, these are very, very good indicators to say that we have actually achieved substantial improvements in our pathway towards this project in football," he said.
Still, he noted that the target remains important.
"We are not looking for one single objective. We're looking for a sustainable journey, sustainable pathways, with the World Cup 2034 as an aspirational target. This aspirational target is important because if we are going to ask our young Singaporeans to commit to this target, they need to aim high," explained Mr Tan.
"This is something that we want to put before them, but obviously the success of this project is not just on the qualification."
The new project, with the tagline "Unleash the Roar", was announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong in Parliament on Monday during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate.
As part of the project blueprint, the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Sport Singapore (SportSG) and FAS will introduce the football programme in phases.
The first phase will ensure that footballers have the “right conditions” to excel, laying the foundation for Singapore’s football team across age groups to be more competitive on regional and international stages, said MCCY previously.
The implementation of the project will focus on eight "pillars", which involve a number of initiatives such as FAS establishing a standardised National Football Curriculum for football co-curricular activities (CCA) in primary schools.
Mr Tan noted that some of the "desired outcomes" would include having the unified footballing curriculum, as well as getting 10 per cent of each cohort of children between 6 and 12 years old playing football. This would create a pipeline of talent so that children can move into the school football academies, he added.
Improving infrastructure and making use of science and technology to raise performance standards are also part of the project's other "pillars".
"In every (of the) pillar(s) that we have, we want to measure some outcomes. These are the outcomes that we wanted to make sure that we fixed as part of the project," said Mr Tan.
"There are certain outcomes that we're still discussing, but ... let's for example participation we are quite fixed. We want 10 per cent of kids to be playing soccer on a regular basis," he said.
"For the elite pathway ... we wanted to have about 250 per cohort so 1,000 kids actually training at the elite level - that's actually quite significant."
Together with the Ministry of Defence, MCCY is also looking into supporting eligible footballers through early enlistment, leave and time off for full-time national servicemen to train and play at top levels while fulfilling their National Service obligations.
This vision of the project is based on the involvement of government agencies including MCCY and the Ministry of Education (MOE), alongside SportSG, FAS, the football fraternity, corporate partners and Singaporeans, said FAS in an accompanying press release.
There will also be a public naming exercise for the project in due course, revealed Mr Tan.
Mr Tong had said in 2019, when he was FAS vice-president, that qualification for the FIFA World Cup in 2034 would be a "realistic" goal for Singapore.
This is not the first time Singapore has set a target to play at football's showcase tournament. In 1998, Singapore said it was aiming to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the initiative, dubbed Goal 2010, was “bold and ambitious”.
FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS
Speaking at the press conference, FAS president Lim Kia Tong noted that there has been comparison between the new national project and Goal 2010.
"While we acknowledge that Goal 2010 did not reach its originally intended goal, it has brought about several positive outcomes, including the Lions' extended period of dominance in the region, winning four ASEAN championship titles starting in 1998, and then in 2004, 2007 and finally 2012."
Mr Lim noted that Goal 2010 had been "primarily driven" at implementing "high-performance fixes" and having the sole objective of making the 2010 World Cup.
"I'm certain that we should look to do more than that. And the objective must be to rebuild the sport from the ground up. The focus will be on the fundamentals of football, starting from the grassroots stage right up to the elite level," said Mr Lim.
The new project would be the "next step" to bring Singapore football forward, and it has incorporated lessons from Goal 2010, he added.
"Unlike past projects which have been solely measured against results on the international stage ... (it) will be grounded in the longer-term sustainability of our football ecosystem. The focus will be on improving overall standards in key aspects of the ecosystem and through that, aim to achieve outcomes and success well beyond 2034," Mr Lim explained.
Mr Tan also noted that a "large portion" of Goal 2010 was the recruitment and naturalisation of foreign football players.
"This is something that we have learned from the past. That is probably not as sustainable. If we want to invest in football, it is best that we involve ... Singaporeans as a base. And this means that we want our children to grow up and be the stars of tomorrow," he noted.
"It doesn't rule out the inculcation of foreigners into the national team, but certainly the base has to be Singaporean. And this means basically fundamentally, we are going to invest in a development pathway that is large."
MIRRORING SINGAPORE'S ASPIRATIONS
Speaking also at the press conference, SportSG chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin noted that football is an "ideal" project due to its high participation rates locally.
"On average, for players 13 years old and above - that means not even counting the primary school kids - about 130,000 people play football every week. Of course, these statistics are in pre-COVID times," he said.
"That is not a small number. Football is the most-watched sport in Singapore and football is one of a few sports that Singaporeans play throughout their lifetime."
Mr Lim noted that the project "mirrors" Singapore's aspirations as a nation.
"Football as a project will be a strong platform will be a strong platform for us to realise that together," he added.