SINGAPORE: The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Monday (Dec 18) introduced a bumper crop of changes for the 2018 S.League season - chief amongst them an emphasis on “youth philosophy”.
Singapore’s sole professional football tier, founded in 1996, has in recent years suffered from falling attendances and growing apathy among local fans.
To stem the decline and “rejuvenate” the league, FAS president Lim Kia Tong emphasised “increasing the number of promising youth players competing” alongside other pillars such as capability development, cost efficiency and a vibrant culture.
Thus, all local sides in the nine-team S.League, save for the Young Lions, must have in their ranks at least six local Under-23 players.
At least three of them must be named in the starting line-up for all league games. If a U-23 player is substituted in the first half, he must be replaced by another U-23 player.
Setting aside current champions Albirex Niigata of Japan and Brunei’s DPMM, the six remaining clubs - Balestier Khalsa, Geylang International, Home United, Hougang United, Tampines Rovers and Warriors FC - must also have at least eight local players under the age of 30.
Each club will also be restricted to two foreign signings.
These numbers apply to a squad size of between 19 and 22 players. For larger squads up to 25, any additional players must also be U-23.
This means each team will only have space for three to six local players above 30 years old.
EXPERIENCE VS YOUTH
Last season, there were 26 local players aged over 30, and three more individuals will turn 31 come 2018, said FAS vice-president S Thavaneson.
The new changes will cap the maximum total number of local players over 30 at 36 - or 48 assuming the clubs do not sign foreigners.
Going by these numbers, there is no age discrimination at play, argued both Mr Thavaneson and deputy president Bernard Tan.
"It will be left to these players to prove to clubs they are worth signing," said the former.
Mr Tan added: "We do want experienced players to play with younger players."
"One of the biggest problems we have in our existing S.League is that it doesn't incentivise the development of players."
Said Mr Lim: "If we don’t impose this under-23 quota, there is no pathway for them… because you can see from past experience that clubs are quite reluctant to field (young players)."
This limited exposure and playing time, coupled with National Service, will produce a “gap” which “does not signal well for Singapore”, he noted.
FOR THE GOOD OF SINGAPORE
Additionally, the current 2.4km running test will be replaced by a Yo-Yo test - a modified Beep test which “mimics more accurately the intensity and tempo of a football game”, said Mr Lim.
Players must pass this at least twice throughout the season, compared to the 2.4km run being held once at the start of the campaign.
It will also be mandatory for every club to engage a fitness coach.
League matches will kick off on Mar 31 instead of February, and wrap up in late October, giving the national team a month to prepare for the ASEAN Football Federation Cup.
It was also announced that the Young Lions will continue to compete in the S.League for at least two more seasons, in view of the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 Southeast Asian Games.
For the 2018 season, the budget for each club will be cut by about 19 per cent to S$888,200, said Mr Thavaneson.
Said Mr Tan: "Will (these changes) work? We don't know. But we think there's a good chance of producing a different result, because we're trying something different."
“We were very careful to make sure that we look after everybody - but most importantly, look after Singapore football. That’s the whole objective of these changes.”
In his closing remarks, Mr Lim said: “The culture has to change in some ways. Players must now know we have fought to keep a professional league going.
“The culture of management of clubs also has to change. A renewed mindset will improve the product, then ultimately more sponsors will come on board, there will be more money … and better salaries to encourage younger players to know there’s a future in Singapore football.
“Here, we have a career path in terms of a professional league, yet sometimes the way our players behave is quite lacking. There has to be a shift in the mindset."
“I strongly believe in the things we’re going to roll out,” he said. “I will hope the whole landscape of football in Singapore will change, and the starting point will be the S.League.”