I did the right thing with the Lions: Bernd Stange

I did the right thing with the Lions: Bernd Stange
Bernd Stange overseeing a training session at the Jalan Besar Stadium during his time as national football coach. TODAY file photo
Former national coach points to Singapore’s drop in rankings since his departure as proof he was on the right track
Published: 2:20 PM, October 4, 2017
Updated: 7:28 PM, October 4, 2017

SINGAPORE — It already seems as if Bernd Stange left Singapore a long time ago, but it was only April 2016 - a year and a half ago - when the German slipped out of Changi Airport without much fanfare.

Now back in his homeland, the 69-year-old dabbles in a few coaching courses and education and has time to keep an eye on goings-on in the Republic.

In his three years as head coach of the Singapore national football team, Stange delivered highs and lows.

The goalless draw in Japan during qualification for the 2018 World Cup, which brought momentary fame to Izwan Mahbud after the young keeper pulled off 18 saves against the Blue Samurai, and wins over Syria, were balanced against an embarrassing group-stage exit on home soil at the 2014 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.

There were some who said that had the former Iraq boss selected a little more experience in the squad, Singapore could have made a better defence of their regional title. Instead, thirty-something veteran defenders like Daniel Bennett and Fahrudin Mustafic, and even the evergreen Aleksandar Duric, by then in his mid-40s, were told by Stange soon after he arrived in 2013 that they no longer were part of his plans for a youthful Lions squad that would play the fast-paced pressing game he envisioned for the Republic.

In the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, Singapore just needed to hold Malaysia to progress but ended losing 3-1 with the Tigers grabbing two goals in injury-time.

Yet Stange said adamantly to TODAY recently in a telephone interview: “I would do it again.

“If you have players in their mid-thirties, it is my experience that you never have a chance to progress. They can never reach the next level.”

In fact, Stange insisted that things could have gone very differently at the tournament.

“We were not outclassed in the Suzuki Cup,” said the German whose other results in the four-team group included a 1-2 loss to Thailand and a 4-2 win over Myanmar. “The margins were narrow. We were almost at the same level with Thailand and there was a late penalty against Malaysia.”

Stange also saw the tournament as a path towards greater things.

“That team had to grow. My plan was to play at the 2019 Asian Cup when these young players like Hariss Harun who would be 28 or 29 and at their peak,” he said.

“You can’t play with 40-year-olds. They can’t keep the speed. Football is getting faster and that is why I would never change my mind.

“I was always honest to explain the players and told them straight with a cup of coffee.

“Zainudin Nordin and Winston Lee told me that my job was to rebuild the national team,” he added, referring to the then Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president, and the current general secretary.

“When I came, we were ranked 165th (in the world) and I never lost a match with Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia.”

Then, in a clear reference to current national coach V Sundramoorthy, he said: “I was really surprised that the current FAS leaders would allow a coach to bring all the veterans back. I will never understand that.

“How can you have a friendly match against Argentina and put experienced players in the squad?” he said, referring to the Lions’ 0-6 drubbing by the South American country in a friendly international that was meant to mark the FAS’ 125th anniversary.

“This was a match for youngsters to get the experience and move forward. With 24 teams in the Asian Cup, Singapore must be there.”

At the moment, it is may rather than must for Sundram’s team.

After three games of qualification, the Lions have two points - following a 0-0 draw with Bahrain, a 1-2 loss to Taiwan and a 1-1 draw with Turkmenistan - and are bottom of their four-team group.

All is not lost, however, as Turkmenistan in second are only two points ahead. Had Singapore kept their lead against the Central Asians earlier this month then things could be looking different but it ended 1-1. As it stands, if October’s return match in Ashgabat ends in a Turkmenistan victory then dreams of Dubai in 2019 are as good as over.

For Stange, that would be unacceptable.

“If you take experienced players and don’t get results, then I think you fail. Two wins out of 18 games is disastrous,” he said, referring to Sundram’s current track record as national coach since he took over the team in 2016.

“I have nothing against Sundram. He was my assistant and I am wondering that he didn’t follow my way of passing and attacking football with overlapping full-backs. He changed it completely. He is responsible for that as is every coach in the world.”

It is not just the results but the way the national team is playing that gives Stange grief.

He added: “The coaches have changed the direction. I saw the SEA Games. I have just to admit it is not the football I taught. It is pumping long balls, making free-kicks , set pieces, not the philosophy I was teaching all my time.”

The problems go deep according to Stange.

“I think they have to start from scratch. There must be change as there is no way to continue as they did because they are falling down dramatically. I will not say since I left, but I left at 148 in the ranking.”

The Lions have dropped from there to 171, their lowest ranking ever, but have also since climbed to 162.

As ever, it comes down to the S-League, the focus of so many debates and the foundation of the national team.

“A good league means you have a good national team. You have to provide at least eight clubs with professional facilities. You have to put all your investment in the league,” he said.

It can be done, he insisted.

“Singapore is such a lovely country, within a few months they are creating unbelievable things: Subways, streets, shopping centres, universities. They make everything but they are not able to handle such a simple sport as football. The FAS needs support from the government and Sport Singapore (SportSG).”

From an outsider’s point of view, however, it does look like support for local football from the authorities is diminishing.

According to media reports, the S.League could face a drastic cut in funding next year. It seems that the Tote Board, which provides funding for Singapore’s only professional domestic sports league, is only willing to give S$8.5 million, a huge drop from its annual budget of S$16 million.

Sport SG chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin told media that the FAS needs to focus on improving its youth development. As such, more resources will be channeled to beef up this area as the Government looks to reverse the ailing fortunes of its national teams.

“The review of the S-League will have to take that into account, because there’s only so much (funding) available for the whole of football development,” he said.

But despite the current woes that Singapore football is facing, Stange is optimistic that the sport can turn itself around.

However, the Lions must lead the way by producing results on the international stage - and they must start doing so soon.

“Singapore’s a country like other countries with five million. Compare it with Scotland, Slovenia and others,” said Stange.

“Kids are the same everywhere in the world. They all like to play football and it is No. 1 in Singapore and always will be because if you get the results you can unite the country.

“It is a massive job and it is not done in a few years. But with the national team, you have to find a way quickly or you are out.”

About the author:

TODAY Sports’ guest columnist John Duerden has been based in Asia for almost 20 years and covers the continental football scene for The New York Times, BBC Radio, The Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer magazine