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S’pore in 2034 World Cup? Football fraternity wants to know how FAS plans to achieve its goal

SINGAPORE — With Singapore’s national football team currently ranked 162nd in the world, the Football Association Singapore’s (FAS) recently-declared goal of getting Singapore to the World Cup finals in 2034 has understandably been met with scepticism by members of the football fraternity.

Singapore's Under-23 team celebrating winning the bronze medal at the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar. Pundits said Singapore should set a goal of winning its first SEA Games football title first.

Singapore's Under-23 team celebrating winning the bronze medal at the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar. Pundits said Singapore should set a goal of winning its first SEA Games football title first.

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SINGAPORE — With Singapore’s national football team currently ranked 162nd in the world, the Football Association Singapore’s (FAS) recently-declared goal of getting Singapore to the World Cup finals in 2034 has understandably been met with scepticism by members of the football fraternity.

However, people whom TODAY spoke to are optimistic that the effort taken in trying to achieve the target could go some way in lifting Singapore football out of the doldrums.

They are also interested to know details of the FAS’ plans to achieve that goal.

FAS vice-president Edwin Tong revealed on Aug 18 the association’s target to play at the 2034 World Cup finals. He told The Straits Times that this was a “realistic” goal.

“We’ve always wanted to be somewhere on the world stage, so we need to start,” Mr Tong, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Health and Law, had said.

Goal 2034, he said, will be used to focus and shape what the FAS and its stakeholders do, and that grassroots football, youth development, infrastructure and schools will be key to achieving success.

The World Cup finals in 2034 would have been expanded to involve 48 teams, up from 32 currently, with eight countries from the Asian Football Confederation, up from a maximum of four guaranteed slots currently.

Singapore is currently 34th in Asia.

Commenting on the announcement, former national coach Seak Poh Leong said: “I think it is good, because if you don’t do anything to football, football at the moment is dead and buried in Singapore, nobody talks about it and such an announcement is better than nothing.

“It’s a bold decision, and I think it’s good that it was announced and I believe we will get better and proper plans. If there’s a desire to move on, and people talk about it, then there’s interest in football.”

Several others whom TODAY spoke with had their doubts about whether the goal could be achieved, pointing to what happened with Goal 2010 — Singapore’s attempt at qualifying for the 2010 World Cup that was sparked by then prime minister Goh Chok Tong in 1998.

Former Singapore coach PN Sivaji said that to be serious contenders, Singapore has to be competing and winning — or at least losing narrowly — with the top Asian teams by 2031 or 2032.

“Based on our present standards and state of football, the time appears insufficient,” he said.

The Lions were ranked 81st in the Fifa rankings in 1998 when Mr Goh first spoke about the World Cup.

Long-time fan and blogger Ko Po Hui said that while he has not seen the blueprint for Goal 2034 to say much about it, he wonders if the purpose is “to lift the standard of the local game on the whole on a sustainable basis, or just a one-off, ad-hoc attempt to see Singapore in the World Cup in 2034”.

The 43-year-old said that Singapore will have to tackle the “usual obstacles” it has been facing all these years, such as the “absence of a comprehensive development system to groom our players”.

LACK OF PROPER YOUTH DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM

Former S-League midfielder Rhysh Roshan Rai believes that one of the biggest challenges Singapore faces is a lack of “sporting culture”.

“Sports is not considered a career option and it has been that way for years,” said the 34-year-old football analyst and commentator.

Mr Rai said that getting young players to “buy in completely” to playing football and educating them to “live and train like a professional” has always been a challenge here.

He also stressed that a strong “youth development ecosystem” is crucial to develop the technical abilities required to perform at the international level, which are lacking in Singapore’s players.

“Youth development has to not only be at the national level but at the club level as well,” he said.

Agreeing, Mr Seak said that when it comes to talent, it is “the more the merrier”.

Talent development, he believes, should take place beyond the football academy and also be the responsibility of clubs and schools.

Mr Sivaji said: “The building blocks related to football development and elite football need to be in place and strong support needs to be garnered so that it can help produce the desired results.”

NEED FOR A MORE COMPETITIVE LOCAL LEAGUE

Then there is the national league, which was rebranded the Singapore Premier League (SPL) in March last year.

The FAS had then introduced a slew of changes aimed at rejuvenating the ailing league, with the emphasis on a “youth philosophy” to increase the number of young talent that could play for the country.

The new rules included ensuring that all local sides in the SPL had at least six Singaporean under-23 players in their ranks, and that at least three must be named in the starting line-up for all league games.

Mr Rai said that the aim at this point in time should be to improve the youth development system and the SPL.

Mr Seak said that the state of the national team is a reflection of the league.

“Every national team depends on the national league,” said Mr Seak. “If the national league is screwed up, you have a mediocre national team.”

ON NS AND FOREIGN TALENT

Then there is the National Service (NS) issue.

Mr Sivaji said that 18 to 21 is the age where most players either make it or drop out of the sport and that there needs to be ways to “mitigate the effect of NS on the development of our local players”.

Mr Rai, who played for Singapore Armed Forces FC — now known as Warriors FC — from 2010 to 2011, said: “Perhaps a solution could be to bring back the scheme where players could continue their playing careers as part of their NS by making Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) and Police Sports Association part of the Singapore Premier League.”

Both currently play in the amateur National Football League Division One, which is one tier below the SPL.

When asked what else could be done to boost the nation’s chances on the world stage, most who were interviewed agreed that naturalising foreign talent, which has been a divisive issue in other sports such as table tennis, is something that should be seriously considered.

In talking about foreign talent, Mr Sivaji said Singapore could learn from Qatar, a team that had won the recent AFC Asian Cup with many foreign players naturalised from a young age.

He pointed out how the Lions in 2007 — who came closest to qualifying for the Asian Cup — consisted of foreign talents like Egmar Goncalves, Mustafic Fahrudin and Shi Jia Yi playing alongside Singapore-born players.

“If we can (qualify for the World Cup) with Singaporeans born and raised here, that would be the best,” said Mr Seak. But this “might not be enough”, he added. 

“We need to have some foreign talent; we have to take advantage of it because every country is using foreign talent. Come on, Germany’s table tennis (team) is represented by someone from China.”

‘SHOOT FOR THE MOON’

Mr Seak said that with Goal 2034, the FAS should set achievable targets along the way.

“One step at a time,” he said. “When we started Goal 2010 (in 1998), after a while we were at the top of Asean, so at least that’s Phase One, when we can (achieve) that we try to go to Phase Two.”

Mr Rai concurred and said that the FAS should set targets such as winning a first ever SEA Games gold, doing well at AFF and AFC youth tournaments, and qualifying for the Asian Cup regularly.

The next step, he said, is to ensure that there are enough funding and resources to meet every target that leads Singapore to the eventual goal of World Cup qualification.

“You still need a whole lot of fuel if you want to shoot for the moon, even if you only land among the stars along the way,” Mr Rai said.

Related topics

Singapore football World Cup Goal 2034 FAS Sports

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