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Lack of professionalism, accountability among issues hampering youth football development

SINGAPORE — First they suffered a 12-0 loss to Indonesia in a friendly in June, followed by a 11-0 defeat to Japan and a 6-1 loss to Malaysia at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-16 Championship qualifiers last month.

Singapore's U-16 football team were beaten 11-0 by Japan at the AFC U16 Championship qualifers in September 2017. Photo: FAS Facebook page

Singapore's U-16 football team were beaten 11-0 by Japan at the AFC U16 Championship qualifers in September 2017. Photo: FAS Facebook page

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SINGAPORE — First they suffered a 12-0 loss to Indonesia in a friendly in June, followed by a 11-0 defeat to Japan and a 6-1 loss to Malaysia at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-16 Championship qualifiers last month.

A string of embarrassing defeats by Singapore's national age group teams, touted as the future of local football, has once again shone a harsh spotlight on youth development here.

The recent flops, and a dismal 2017 record of six wins out of 21 games, by the Singapore U-15, U-18 and U-22 teams, raised concerns among the football fraternity and local fans about the direction and future of Singapore’s most loved sport. Many also questioned the efficacy of Football Association of Singapore (FAS) technical director Michel Sablon’s blueprint for youth development.

The situation took an unexpected twist last month, when Sablon publicly criticised the FAS executive committee (exco) for not backing him and his plans. The Belgian’s comments in the media drew rebuke from the FAS, which called his actions “unproductive and unbecoming”.

While TODAY understands that the FAS is set to announce major changes to its youth plans at the end of the month, members of the fraternity say more needs to be done to improve the fortunes of Singapore football.

Local observers and experts whom TODAY spoke to pointed to a litany of issues that are currently plaguing youth football development. These include a lack of professionalism and accountability, lack of support for coaches’ education, a poor talent scouting system, and a lack of competition among the youths.

SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS

Catching youths in the “golden age” bracket and imparting them with technical skills is key to development, with primary school coaches bearing the bulk of the responsibility in youth development. However, observers told TODAY that the majority of school coaches – who are hired and graded based on their teams’ performances in inter-school competitions – have chosen to forsake development, and technical skills, in order to gain quick results on the pitch.

One example cited by former Centre of Excellence (COE) coach Khidhir Khamis and Rizal Rais, who coaches White Sands Primary School, was the exploitation of the kick-in rule, which was introduced this year to replace throw-ins. The rule change was meant to promote possession play, but teams used it to launch long balls into the box at every opportunity.

“It’s the easiest way to win, you skip a lot of processes, you don’t have to do as much work, you don’t have to work as hard in training, but then your players also don’t learn much,” said Rizal.

Following complaints from coaches, an amendment to the rule for next season will stipulate that kick-ins must be played on the ground.

NO PRIDE, NO PROFESSIONALISM

According to industry insiders, youth football has also suffered from a lack of professionalism, and poor quality of coaches.

Among the litany of complaints: coaches who turn up late or are absent at training sessions, filthy training grounds and equipment, and those who only teach “kick and rush” football.

There is also a lack of commitment from coaches, said Khidhir, who coaches at Sengkang Green Primary school and also runs the 2Touch Soccer School.

“I saw COE coaches go on holiday even when the season has started and they have a game coming up,” he said.

“Then you have coaches who are late for training or don’t start the sessions on time… where’s the integrity and accountability?”

While there are no easy solutions, some have suggested that the FAS work with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to deploy qualified coaches to primary schools to teach football to the youths. The other alternative is to improve the standards of primary-level coaches, but Rizal and Khidhir said that the FAS currently engages only its own coaches in the National Football Academy, Junior COE, and COE in development courses.

LACK OF COMPETITION

Poor selection policies for the NFA and age group teams have also bred complacency in the youth players, said industry insiders.

A former FAS youth coach, who did not wish to be named, said he had little choice but to pick players from the Singapore Sports School for the NFA and age-group sides as the training facility was located on its Woodlands campus.

“If I don’t pick sports school players, I don’t have a field to train on... We had better mainstream (school) boys which I had to drop,” said the coach.

Hougang United coach Philippe Aw also warned that stockpiling the best players in the NFA was a mistake.

“You must make people compete, you must make people want to fight for the jersey,” said Aw.

A lack of competitive matches is also an issue, with COEs playing just seven league games a season, and another four in the Challenge Cup, after changes were made by FAS last year.

‘WE’RE NOT WORKING HARD ENOUGH’

According to coaches, the local football community is not working hard enough to reinvigorate the local scene. Aw said there is a defeatist mentality among stakeholders – from the FAS administration right down to the coaches and players.

For example, he pointed to the perennial complaint about the lack of football training pitches. “Has the FAS done enough to find more fields for their clubs, for their Centres of Excellences (COEs)? How about the coaches?” he said.

“We have so many (fields) at the schools... but if they say you cannot use the field, do you just accept it, or can you go back and work on a better proposal?”

Khidhir added: “Why are social league organisers booking almost half the fields in Singapore on the weekends, and not the FAS?

“The FAS has the money to pay for it... Instead, we have the weekend warriors… occupying the fields more than the teams that need to train.”

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

In May last year, Sablon outlined a comprehensive plan to improve 11 main areas of Singapore football, including coaches’ education, utilisation of sports science and medicine, and changes to the format of the schools competition. He vowed then to develop a “Singaporean style of play” – defined as fast-passing, offensive football – within the next six years.

An updated grassroots football manual was introduced in 2015 to help teachers, educators and coaches in instructing children aged six to nine to play the sport. FAS had said then that it would approach MOE to introduce the new system in primary schools, and met with the People’s Association to implement this in children’s football programmes in 28 centres across the island.

However, observers told TODAY that there are no guarantees that schools and coaches are adopting the new methods and guidelines as there is no concrete monitoring system.

This was not the case in the past, said Khidhir and Aw, as they cited the examples of P N Sivaji, FAS technical director from 2004 to 2007, and former head of COEs and coach education Robert Lim, who would conduct surprise spot checks on the COE and academy coaches to ensure the training sessions were run properly.

“Robert was like the police... he would hide somewhere or go up a HDB (Housing Development Board) block to record your training and then later call you in to explain your actions,” said Khidhir.

Aw, who encountered Lim when he was still Home United’s youth coach, said: “If you’re professional and hardworking, then you don’t really need someone like Robert to watch over you...But some of our coaches like to take things easy, they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then you have a problem.”

Following Sablon’s public outburst, the FAS stated that benchmarks and targets have to be put in place to chart the progress of youths and technical development. FAS deputy general secretary Yazeen Buhari said in his statement: “FAS is accountable to our stakeholders and to the public, and it is only right we ask for accountability considering the way the region’s youth teams seem to be playing at a much higher level than our boys.

“It cannot and should not be status quo, especially when the desired outcomes are not coming through.”

MOVING FORWARD

While Singapore football can expect to suffer in the short-term, Aw said that acknowledging its problems, and finding long-term solutions, will be what matters most.

He said: “We have to start today on solving our problems…be honest with the public and say that we’re terrible, give us time, and we’ll inform you of the progress.

“But if we sweep it under the carpet…nothing will change. Let’s be honest, let’s put our hands up and say we’re not good…this is the plan to make us better, I think the public will accept it.”

 

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