Singapore football turns to youth in bid to lift sagging fortunes

Singapore football turns to youth in bid to lift sagging fortunes

SINGAPORE: As part of a drive to improve player standards, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has unveiled plans to widen the pool of youth players at school level as well as implementing mandatory Under-23 quotas for six local S-League clubs.

These two initiatives were among the main proposals revealed by the FAS to revive Singapore football on the sidelines of the 2017 FAS Annual Congress on Thursday (Nov 16).

The targeted timeline to increase the number of school-going players is understood to be three to five years.

However, sweeping changes to the S-League will take place as soon as next season, which could begin later than usual at the tail-end of March.

According to the FAS, this is to give clubs time to adjust to its new mandatory requirement of having Under-23 players in the squad.

YOUTH-ORIENTED REVAMP IN S-LEAGUE

From 2018, S-League teams will have to feature six local Under-23 players in their match-day squads, with three in the starting eleven of every league game.

The FAS hopes that such a move will create a wider pool of young players for the national team to choose from. 

“The rationale is this: We have to accelerate our youth development,” said FAS vice-president S Thavaneson, on the ageing national squad.

“If you look at the 2016 Suzuki Cup, we had one of the oldest squads in the region.”

The Balestier Khalsa chairman said that he is confident the national team will benefit in the long run, even though it may come at the expense of the S-League’s quality. 

“I am totally confident that the changes we are proposing now will result in a stronger football ecosystem and a stronger national team. We could see improvement within three years," said Mr Thavaneson.

"The S-League must always be seen as a means to an end, and that end is having a strong national team."

To accommodate more space for younger players, the foreign player quota is expected to be reduced to just two players.

“The impetus must be to develop our local players,” added Mr Thavaneson.

“Obviously if we reduce the number of foreign players, our clubs that qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competitions will be at a disadvantage."

“If we have to make a decision between AFC competitions and overall development of Singapore football, then the answer is obvious," he said.

"If we take three foreigners and every foreigner is a striker, our young boys will never get a chance."

S Thavaneson speaking at the FAS Congress 2017
S Thavaneson speaking at the 2017 FAS Annual Congress. (Photo: Football Association of Singapore/Facebook)

Aware that the new policies may affect the squad places for some of the older players in the league, Mr Thavaneson said that the FAS will continue to offer assistance to prepare players for life after football.

“We are encouraging players, younger players - not just older players, to build a second career,” he said. “We'll help them with part time courses involving the game of football and outside the game of football.”

“All players realise that one day their playing careers will end, so it is important that they recognise that and start building their life after football.”

There will be no change to the composition of the teams in the league – foreign clubs Albirex Niigata and Brunei DPMM will continue to feature, while the Garena Young Lions will still be in the S-League.

Garena Young Lions sponsors
Garena Young Lions before an S-League game. (Photo: FAS  Facebook page)

Match schedules though, could change as the FAS are in discussions to push forward kick-offs to 5.30pm, with S-League games taking place only on weekends.

SCHOOLS AS DEVELOPMENT CENTRES

To support the league’s youth-oriented push, plans are also in place to widen the base of school-going players in Singapore.

According to figures given by FAS deputy president Bernard Tan, only 74 primary schools out of a total of 182 schools offer football as a co-curricular activity (CCA).

As for secondary schools, 84 out of a total of 154 schools offers football for its students.

"There are not enough students playing the game across all age levels," said Mr Tan, speaking to reporters at a media briefing.

"We have about 3,000 now and the goal is to increase this number by 10,000 by 2022."

Central to this plan is to make football the core CCA in some secondary schools, with the FAS helping individual schools transition to become a Schools Football Academy (SFA).

The idea is to ensure that national youth football teams, of the Under-16 age groups and below, consist of players not just from the Singapore Sports School – which has its own dedicated football development programme – but also from these SFAs.

“We want to bring football back into the schools and enable more than just the Sports School to deliver players of a national level calibre,” said Mr Tan.

“We want to eventually get to 15 schools but today we already have 5 schools on board.”

St Gabriel’s Secondary, Hong Kah Secondary, St Patrick’s School and Seng Kang Secondary – schools which already have strong footballing traditions – will become SFAs as early as next year, with the FAS setting up a new division aimed at converting more schools in future.

These schools will then compete in an FAS-organised Centres of Excellence (COE) league – a competition separate from the B and C Division competitions organised by the MOE.

Schools that are SFAs though, can still send their reserve teams to play in the MOE competition, but their focus would be facing stronger teams in the COE league.

“There are stronger teams today that can beat weaker schools 8-0 and 12-0,” said Tan. “We don’t want this to happen anymore as the players will learn nothing from those matches.

“Instead we want those teams to face stronger peers more often."

He added: "If I were to organise a match between Hong Kah Secondary and the Singapore Sports School, the outcome of that game would be unclear as they would somewhat be evenly matched."

Hong Kah Secondary football vs Balestier Khalsa pic
Players from Hong Kah Secondary School before their game against Balestier Khalsa's Under-15 football team earlier this year. (Photo: Balestier Khalsa/Facebook)

The crux of the plan though, is to get more youths to join football as their CCA.

“It’s important for them to participate en mass, and to... have multiple teams per school so that more players from those schools can actually participate,” according to FAS deputy president Tan.

“I think that is something that most people in Singapore desire. Even parents and teachers desire for more kids to turn up, run around with the ball and teach the basic movements that make them better sportsmen in the future,” he added.

As for primary school competitions, they will take on a new format. For the Under-10s, games will be five-a-side, while the Under-12s will play in eight-a-side matches instead.

Regular 11-a-side games will only be for secondary school-level and upwards.

“11-a-side games are not really suitable for the younger age-groups as it’s more important to develop their individual skills at those ages,” said Mr Tan.

“For the Under-10s and Under-12s, it’ll be better to inculcate basic movements instead in smaller team sizes.”

RENAMING THE CURRENT NATIONAL FOOTBALL ACADEMY

As for the current National Football Academy (NFA) set-up, it will be rebranded as the FAS Football Academy (FFA) and will have the same status as SFAs.

This is to address the current misconception that the national youth teams are only made up of NFA players.

Young Lions FC
There will be more playing opportunities for Under-23 players in Singapore in S-League clubs under the new rules implemented in the league next season. (File photo: Ria Chen)

“The whole idea of the name change is to correct the idea that NFA players are national (youth) team players. This is not the case,” said Tan.

“There has been a misconception in the past, and I have been assured by the people in the FAS that it has never been the intention - but because it has caused so much angst, we decided to (implement) the name change.

“The move is to emphasise that the academy is just one of the many football academies in our ecosystem."

Mr Tan added: “We’ve really got to treat everybody on an equal footing and allow the national age-group coaches to scout around for the best players for the national team.

"If the name change helps to clarify the role, then I think it’s important.”

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