12 tries. 12 failures. Such is Singapore's tragic involvement in the quadrennial Asian Cup qualifiers. The Lions' latest attempt to reach the Asian Cup Finals fell flat after a 3-0 loss to Bahrain on Nov 14. The national team continues to be in dire straits even though hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the S.League since it kicked off in 1996.
If the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) is sincere about wanting the Lions to improve, it must address two related problems that have persisted for far too long – the shrinking pool of quality footballers, and the continual selection of incompetent players.
Remove dead wood, select overlooked players
Singapore football is crying out for a massive cultural change. Patrick Ang, former chairman of the now-defunct FAS National Teams Committee, recently told The Sunday Times: "The players coming through the ranks aren't good enough, and the attitude and culture here are all wrong."
The FAS must adopt these two measures to tackle the culture of mediocrity. Because this will take time to bear fruit, the football body should start immediately to build a culture of excellence among footballers of all ages.
Next, get rid of dead wood in the national squad and hand the Lions jersey to overlooked players who have the potential to shine. Those with robust S.League performances deserve a real shot at donning national colours.
But note that a real shot does not mean:
Instead of worrying about the ability of players with limited or no previous experience in international football, the FAS should be more concerned about not giving promising players sufficient opportunity to show what they are capable of.
To sharpen the readiness of such players for Lions duty, the FAS can provide them with regular international match experience by reinstating the Singapore Intermediate team.
Lions B team unrestricted by age
The Singapore Intermediates were once the official national B team. It wasn't restricted by age, although most of its players were in their early 20s. The Intermediates also included individuals who had previously played a few Lions matches. A regular movement of players between the A and B teams facilitated a healthy competition for national team selection.
The FAS should organise such a B team again in order to enlarge Singapore's pool of players who are ready to step onto the big stage.
Adopt the past practice of exposing the Intermediates to a higher level of football than the Singaporean league, either against foreign club sides or the A teams of weaker footballing nations for a start. The Lions B team could play friendlies against Malaysian league champion Johor DT or Brunei's national team, before progressing to tackling tougher foreign opponents.
If the FAS remains unconvinced, it should bear this in mind:
In the aftermath of Singapore's shocking 4-0 defeat by Selangor in the 1981 Malaysia Cup final, more than half the first team quit. But despite losing his six most experienced and influential Lions, then-national coach Jita Singh managed to rebuild the team by recruiting quality players who had gained valuable international match experience with the Intermediates. That same year, the new-look Lions did well to qualify for the SEA Games semi-finals and missed the final by the smallest of margins, losing a penalty shootout to Malaysia. Two years later, Singapore reached the final for the first time.
Does anyone really believe the old FAS system of cultivating a national B team of robust players had nothing to do with the Lions having a more ferocious bite in the past?
Decades ago, there was a constant supply of Lions-ready players. But, currently, national coach V Sundram Moorthy suffers from a shortage of what he deems capable forwards and defenders. Sundram even resorts to fielding central defender Safuwan Baharudin as a forward and midfielder Hariss Harun as a defender.
Come on lah, FAS, do you still think there's no need to bring back the Singapore Intermediates?