Singapore Football: The Need to move abroad (1/2)

There is some pressure on the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to improve the quality of Singapore football. For years, they have been a regional power in the Association of South East Asian (ASEAN) region for many years now, aside from a blip in 2010. They are the current holders of the region’s premier tournament, the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, as well as the nation with the most tournament wins (4). However, beyond ASEAN, Singapore has not done as well on the general Asian football stage. They have not qualified for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup for the past three decades, let alone having any chance of qualification for the FIFA World Cup. Why? One problem is youngsters who show potential in their early ages blossom, are not allowed to have proper continuous development due to the fact that at 18, they have to enlist for two years of National Service, where their football development is very much halted and affected. It has been argued that it is these two years between the ages of 17 to 21 that they begin to fully develop their potential. However, the main problem for all this? Probably the fact that Singapore footballers are unwilling or unable to travel abroad to further their football careers. They are almost always stuck in the local leagues (Singapore League, or S-League for short), where the standards are just not good enough.

The mood around the FAS has been changing for the past few years now. Rather than just focusing on two week training stints for their youth footballers, which has almost no use in their development, the FAS has moved to sponsor or push players to go to football clubs overseas. The most notable and recent example is that of National Football Academy (NFA) graduate Adam Swandi, 17, who is currently at the academy of French Ligue 2 side FC Metz for a year. He impressed scouts all over Europe during his time at their youth tournaments and trials there, with the likes of Atletico Madrid wanting to snap him up as well. The sons of football legend Fandi Ahmad, Irfan, 15 and Ikhsan, 13, recently jetted off to Spanish Liga Segunda team Hercules for a three month training stint, in which they have an option of a further three years if they can adapt to life in Europe. 

These aforementioned players are more for the next decade or so, when they mature into the premier players Singapore’s football fraternity hope they become. For the near future however, some of the members of the recently crowned Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions Singapore LionsXII (read: Lions Twelve) could and should be moving abroad for the sake of the current national set-up.

core needs to be broken up

Riding high on the success of the past 7 months with the national side clinching their record fourth AFF Suzuki Cup title, while the LionsXII winning the MSL with a game to spare, it is time Singapore attempt to make some sort of impression beyond and on the Asian stage. This is why the core of the LionsXII team, and also the national team, needs to be broken up and, as crude as it sounds, fed to overseas clubs and better standard leagues. The likes of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, centre-backs Safuwan Bahrudin and Baihakki Khaizan, midfield maestro Hariss Harun, as well as playmaker and skipper Shahril Ishak need to go abroad now in order to give Singapore football any chance of getting to the next level within the next decade. By heading overseas, they could lead the way to more football pros to head abroad, especially so for those below 20 years of age. As well as making the headlines with their stints abroad, this would inspire more youth footballers to aspire to go overseas in the future.

For the immediate future though, there are as many, if not more, benefits the national team as well as the LionsXII could gain. With the core going overseas, the likes of midfield destroyer Isa Halim would step into the breach of seniority, maybe donning the captain’s armband, and forward Fazrul Nawaz would be the man the team looks toward to lead the line, and also to shoulder the burden of guiding forwards like Shafiq Ghani. Being key components to this team, this would increase the responsibilities of both and will only spur both Halim and Nawaz to greater heights.

halfway out the exit door

Nearing their thirties, Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak almost moved to Thai club Bangkok Glass at the start of this season in search of their last big pay-day. However being contracted to the LionsXII, they were bound to their final year contracts and now would most definitely leave with their careers coming to a close within the next five years. They would do well in Thai football, where the standard is likely better and more importantly give them greater experience of different types of football. They would lend their experience to younger heads in the national set-up. Lastly, their probable inside knowledge of Thai football and Thai footballing culture would also serve Singapore well when the two nations meet in World Cup qualifiers or ASEAN tournaments.

future cornerstones

The one of highest interest in terms of a move abroad is surely centre-back Safuwan Bahrudin. Having blossomed into a defensive asset for his title-winning team, he is at the stage of his career where he needs to go overseas in order to have any chance of developing into a better player. Already a potential star defender in the making, developing his talents abroad would almost confirm his place as the defensive rock and cornerstone of the national team’s defence for the best part of the decade. With reported interests from Australia and Japan, a move to either country would benefit him and local football. Both represents much tougher leagues and higher standards of football, and it will be a steeper learning curve for Bahrudin; giving him a good platform to hone his defensive capabilities, and bulking up his frame. His departure would allow the likes of Shakir Hamzah and Madhu Mohana to step up and lead the defence. However, in the unfortunate likelihood that a move abroad does not come to fruition, with Khaizan almost sure to leave, he will still have the chance to be the next leader of the LionsXII defence, and another stellar season would surely see him move next year.

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