How to ‘unleash the roar’ in the national football project towards Goal 2034
On Monday (March 8), Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong announced in Parliament the launch of the “Unleash the Roar” project that is related to the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) aspirational target of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup. Even though the project has received mostly positive feedback, there remain questions from sceptics for whom some of these initiatives sound all too familiar.
On Monday (March 8), Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong announced in Parliament the launch of the “Unleash the Roar” project that is related to the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) aspirational target of qualifying for the 2034 World Cup.
Mooted as a new national initiative to unite Singaporeans and lift local football, the project is built on eight pillars which would see the adoption of a national football curriculum, the establishment of school football academies and an elite league as well as enhanced coaching support and scholarships for players who wish to pursue a career in football.
Even though the project has received mostly positive feedback, there remain questions from sceptics for whom some of these initiatives sound all too familiar.
The FAS had previously launched a national football syllabus back in 2010 and had also devised a strategic plan in 2015 which mentioned the commencement of school football academies and an elite league for at least eight of the best footballing secondary schools, elements of which appear to have been mirrored in the latest project.
While the doubts are understandable given past performance, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s involvement and the announcement of the project in Parliament bode well for improved accountability and transparency.
Such improvements would also be a welcome change given that the then FAS general secretary Winston Lee had himself admitted in 2015 that FAS should be more open with the challenges that prevented it from achieving many of their targets.
Regular updates and information on the project and its progress would also help in the project’s aim of uniting Singaporeans by generating interest and keeping the project in people’s minds rather than having it fade into the shadows after the announcement.
The project’s three phases also give stakeholders and all interested parties clear markers from which the progress and success of the project can be evaluated.
In addition to this, the MCCY could increase the interest in the project from within the footballing community by seeking feedback from various stakeholders such as fans, parents, coaches and players.
For example, MCCY would do well to seek inputs from some of our best local coaches such as Gavin Lee from Tampines Rovers or Noor Ali from Geylang International in devising the national curriculum.
Rather than only looking outside to other countries for models to replicate or adapt, it would be worthwhile supplementing this with the views of our own coaches who have both had experience of coaching overseas and proven track records in developing young players.
In developing and implementing the national curriculum, attention should also be paid to coaching education.
To support the long-term nature of the project, coaches should not be trained to be the ones who merely implement the curriculum but as individuals who are able to adapt and equip players with the relevant technical skills and the ability to play in various systems and formations.
This would be useful as the systems and formations used by our national teams may change over time, with say a change in the national coach.
The project should not have to be reset each time such a change arises.
However, none of the above initiatives will bear much fruit if we do not create a viable pathway for the youth players to move on to become professionals.
While the impetus appears to be to send more players overseas, we will still require a good local league where players can start their careers and showcase their abilities to be able to secure such moves abroad.
Much has been already said about the current mandatory under-23 rule implemented in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), from its effects on driving players aged 24 and above into early retirement to recent comments by coaches and players such Aurelio Vidmar and Hariss Harun on its detrimental effects on the national team.
If there remain doubts on the viability of a career in football, the results of MCCY’s projects may not be as envisioned and all the effort and funding put into youth football may amount to little.
As such, change is necessary to ensure that the focus on youth development remains while players enjoy the comfort and security of knowing that they have a career in football beyond the age of 23.
One way this can be achieved is to shift the policy from mandating that three under-23 players play in each SPL game or that clubs sign a minimum number of players below that age to a policy where youth development and participation is incentivised.
For example, clubs in the SPL can be rewarded based on the number of young players they play in the league or the FAS or the ministry could also partially fund or subsidise the salaries of these youth players.
These initiatives would ensure that youth development remains intact while returning autonomy to coaches who would be best placed to decide their best team and when a young player may be ready for his debut in the league.
Lastly, and very importantly, for MCCY’s project to be truly unifying, the initiative has to improve the support for and the level of women’s football in Singapore.
The focus cannot be on our men’s teams but must include the development of the women’s game such that our women too can one day play football professionally in Singapore.
While qualification for the 2034 World Cup appears to be the most eye-catching element of the project, it has been rightfully classified as being aspirational.
The focus instead should be on journey and the recognition that such a big aspirational goal is a necessary element in the process of achieving other targets such as being the leading football nation in Southeast Asia and competing ably with Japan, South Korea and the best teams in Asia. These more realistic targets should be seen as non-negotiables.
The road ahead is long and it will take patience and support from everyone, not just the Government, for the project to succeed.
I believe that if we all chip in, and if such interest and support can be sustained, we will truly be able to unleash the roar again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sudhershen Hariram is a lawyer with Tan Rajah & Cheah who played football professionally from 2011 to 2012 for Tanjong Pagar United Football Club in the old S League.