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 By Steve Darby

Singapore football in mess due to 'appalling' leadership - Steve Darby

It is sad to see the perilous state of Singapore football.

Forget the FIFA rankings (173rd) as they are not the key issue. More important is the record of the national teams because professional football is a results' game. We've also seen the decline of the S. League in terms of crowds, sponsors and quality of players.

Appalling leadership, including a fixation on an ASEAN Super League that was never going to happen, has seen Singapore go from a leader in Southeast Asia to one of the worst in the region -- in just half a decade.

Here are five things that can be done to improve a dire situation.

1. Get more Singaporeans playing football

Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-cultural country of 5.75 million people, with around 76.2 percent of the population being ethnic Chinese.

And yet, when you look at the S. League, Chinese players make up only about two percent of squad members. In fact, with Albirex Niigata (S) a developmental side from the J.League among the 10 teams, there are actually more Japanese players than Chinese players in the nation's only professional sports competition.

Albirex celebrate 2017 S.League title victory
With Albirex Niigata (S) one of the 10 professional clubs, there are more Japanese players than ethnic Chinese in the S.League.

It is encouraging that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) set a target last week to increase the number of students playing football from 3,000 to more than 10,000 in 2022.

But they also need to dig deeper to find out why talented Chinese kids aren't taking up the sport, while trying to establish football role models to inspire them.

2. Better facilities to make it easy to play

Land is scarce and expensive in Singapore, but the best players in the world don't always need to come from manicured academy pitches.

Local kids simply need areas to play for free: whether they are local fields, futsal courts, or even Housing Development Board (HDB) void decks.

Good players will come through this way, so the FAS must work with grassroots' organisations to make it easy for kids by giving them places to have fun with football. Get the politicians to work, and make it a political issue, if necessary.

FAS president Lim Kia Tong and new FAS Council
Although the FAS elected a new leadership group last April, we have seen few improvements in Singapore football.

For example, what is the sports' minister's explanation for the fact that Singapore now lags behind Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in football terms?

3. Get tougher on match fixers

Singapore has had a reputation for being one of the international bases for match fixing in football. Authorities have worked hard in recent years to eradicate the problem, but more needs to be done to completely stamp it out.

It is too easy to punish the players or officials who are at the bottom of the food chain. Keep targeting the "Mister Bigs" so the reputation for corruption will vanish altogether.

Legal betting, through Singapore Pools, remains a major source of football income. If the game is seen as clean, the betting on S.League matches will increase, and the profits can be ploughed back into the sport.

JDT fans
Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim are a good example of how Southeast Asian fans can identify with a local team.

4. Stop the corporate clichés

It is frustrating for genuine sports' people to hear the administrators and marketing people come up with corporate clichés, and so-called buzzwords.

The reality is Singapore football needs private investment linked to community teams. Singapore is the richest country in the ASEAN region, with many huge corporations. The money is there, even if only for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.

Develop strong community clubs, such as Woodlands and Tampines, and make fans want to go to games to support their local teams, through the use of conventional and social media.

Just look at what Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Thailand's Buriram United have done in making it fashionable to wear a Southeast Asian club football shirt.

Let's make heroes out of modern players, and stop living in the past, which had too many fixed games and corrupt players.

South Korean forward Son Heung-min
South Korea's Son Heung-Min has been allowed to defer his National Service to play in the Premier League with Spurs.

5. Show flexibility with National Service

While there is great merit in National Service (NS) for Singaporeans, it is killing the careers of many young footballers who are obliged to serve two years after they turn 18.

Surely, it is more value to the nation if a young athlete becomes a role model by representing his or her country on the sporting stage, or goes to play in a prestigious, foreign league?

Look at the case of Tottenham Hotpsur forward Son Heung-Min, who has been allowed to defer his mandatory NS. He has become a huge star in the Premier League, took South Korea to the 2015 Asian Cup final, and will look to bring his nation glory at next year's World Cup in Russia.

The late teens are a crucial time for development in a young player's life. There are already too many other challenges for Singapore footballers to overcome to not allow some flexibility when it comes to NS.

Hanoi-based ex-Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby has won league titles in Singapore and Malaysia. Twitter: @DarbySteveCoach


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