Eight years ago, the Football Association of Singapore claimed that Singapore would qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and subsequently created a project “Goal 2010”, which they embarrassingly retracted after a couple of years, when they realised its near-impossibility.
It’s halfway through the FIFA World Cup and while the Final 16 have been determined, my interest for this competition has hit an all time low. People have been asking me which team I am rooting for and I replied them all the same – “Singapore”. I find it strange (and quite ridiculously, to be honest) to cheer for another country’s colours; I struggle to find the passion to follow any team’s progress and I’m surprised at how apathetic I have been toward this entire competition.
I remember submitting an article on Goal 2010 during my second year in polytechnic for a module called “News Writing”. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing then-Tanjong Pagar United coach, Tohari Paijan. He was such a nice bloke and was extremely hospitable to an 18-year-old kid on an academic assignment. There was nothing in it for him yet he brought me along on one of the away matches – against Woodlands Wellington. I met him at Queenstown Stadium in the late afternoon and witnessed the final preparations before I hitched a ride in his car to Woodlands, went into the locker room to meet and greet the players (then Under-23 vice-captain Ratna Suffian and current national team player Daniel Bennett) and even sat on the team bench during the evening match! It was a fantastic and memorable experience, I must say.
So if you don’t mind, I thought it’d be pretty interesting to revive something that I penned two World Cups ago. I ascertained then that we were not going to make it to the World Cup in 2010 and my prophetic writing came true – I was right on the money (just like majority of Singaporeans who also found Goal 2010 an unachievable target).
2nd April 2002 | by Joey Asher Tan
The current crop of young players, whose attitudes come under serious scrutiny, jeopardise the chances of GOAL 2010. As these are the players who will eventually take over the mantle of the national team, the fear of insufficient quality in the squad may seem much more real than it really is.
The FAS (Football Association of Singapore) has placed a somewhat unrealistic target to reach the World Cup by year 2010. The Southeast Asian lynchpin, Thailand, which consistently defeats Singapore, is lying at the bottom of their World Cup qualifying campaign, and still without a win. The struggle of Thailand only serves to mirror how long the distance Singapore must journey before qualifying for the World Cup finals.
Recently, Bora Mulitinovic claimed that he would reject the opportunity to coach Singapore. “Think about Argentina. Monday – football, Tuesday – football. In South America, they eat, sleep and drink football. It is their life,” he explains, “Then look at Singapore. It is clean and pleasant, a nice place to live in. But when you find a small patch of grass to play football on, there is a sign saying it is prohibited. That is why I wouldn’t coach Singapore. The philosophy and priorities are different”.
Indeed, his outspoken standpoint epitomises the gloomy mentality of Singaporeans – how many would actually consider a professional football career?
Tohari Paijan, coach of Tanjong Pagar United, states, “Majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, yet the S-League is dominated by Malays. We must convince the Chinese community to consider a career in football”. He believes Singapore can reach the World Cup, but not in year 2010. “The youth are not convincing enough; all they want is fame. Singapore’s young players have no aim and no ambition; they must ask themselves what they want in life. There are simply too many distractions for them”, declares Paijan.
R Suriamurthi, coach of the Under-16 squad, shares similar views with Paijan, “Times have changed. Back in my time, we eat, sleep, and breathe football, and even train up to five hours a day, sometimes training even three times a day. We just want to play football”. He compares this with the youth of today’s football, “Now training is just one and a half hours, that’s all the football they do. After that, we have no control over them – their diet, their sleep – we have absolutely no chance to monitor them at all. The youths think they have everything. It’s not like Alice in Wonderland; you don’t attain skills overnight”.
There are many things beyond a coach’s control. They have no say over policies and procedures. “The education system in Singapore is great, but this system is not suitable for footballers”, Suriamurthi explains, “There’s simply not enough time for training. My players also have to worry about homework and exams. It’s very stressful for them. Some of them also have girlfriends, handphones – and all these are distractions”.
Paijan states again, “Singapore lacks the proper infrastructure. Look at the condition of the pitch. Where is the groundwork?” He also questions the mindset of those players who don the national jersey, “Players must be willing to die for the team. They must put their heart and soul into the team. But where is their sense of belonging?”
Visions, goals, and targets – all these are values that must remain constant. “Jan Poulsen’s contract expires in two years. If a new coach comes in, he will want to run everything in his own different ways”, Paijan elaborates, “If we get a Brazilian coach, will we play samba soccer? If we get an Argentine coach, does that mean we will play tango football?” He frustrates, “Everyone has solutions, but the problem remains unsolved. Singapore is not willing to sacrifice her resources”.
Furthermore, Singaporeans must stop comparing the S-League to the English Premier League. This is simply because we do not have world-class players and excellent infrastructure. In Paijan’s words, “There’s no fight; the English Premier League is light years ahead of the S-League”.
Money will not buy a championship. Two world record transfer fees were splashed out for Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, but Real Madrid is now languishing in 14th position in the Spanish Primera Liga. That is precisely why Paijan places his faith in the youth policy. Tanjong Pagar United have since nurtured highly-rated young players in the mould of Ratna Suffian and Daniel Bennett.
On top of talent and technical ability, Tohari Paijan and R Suriamurthi also stress the magnitude of attitude. Tohari’s players echo his opinions; Ratna Suffian, vice-captain of the Under-23 squad, asserts, “There is a lot of talent out there, but attitude is much more important than talent. Discipline is also crucial for a player’s development”.
Daniel Bennett, who shone in the recent exhibition matches against Liverpool and Manchester United, also reinforces Ratna’s views, “Without attitude, talent is nothing”. Bennett, who qualifies to play for the Singapore team, is an exceptional talent. It is imperative that Singapore does her best to hang on to this colossal asset. A true-blue homegrown player, he steadily rose through the ranks of Tanjong Pagar United’s youth academy. “Robert Lim discovered me in the Milo Cup, and he brought me to Tanjong Pagar”, Bennett recalls.
All we need is a just one good young player to rise up each season. If the S-League can unearth a Ratna Suffian or a Daniel Bennett every season, then there will be light at the end of the tunnel. The Singapore team needs match winners; one Indra Sahdan Daud is simply not enough.
Get the infrastructure right, keep Jan Poulsen in Singapore for a long time, invest heavily in the football academies and centres of excellence, look out for promising talent in the S-League, and most importantly, correct the players’ ailing attitudes, and only then, Singapore’s dream of the World Cup finals will be realised much sooner than later.