AT a time when exposure and experience truly matter, the Young Lions (above) sudden withdrawal from the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Under-22 Championship appears to be a curious, if not controversial, talking-point.
The late opt-out is also likely to burn a US$10,000 hole in the pockets of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) and the big question on the lips of fans: Who’s footing the bill? Taxpayers? Sponsors? Or FAS Council?
The pull-out drama started with a FAS website post this week: “The Singapore Under-22 National Team will not be participating in the 2019 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Under-22 Championship.
“In view of the fact that the same team will also play in the Asian Football Confederation Under-23 qualifiers in March 2019, (head coach) Fandi Ahmad will instead focus on preparations for the qualifiers with a centralised overseas training camp before the tournament for an optimised squad.”
In further response to the media. FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari said: “We have taken into account the quality of preparation and the availability of our young players. For this year, our focus will be on AFC (Asian Football Confederation) U-23 qualifiers in March and the South-east-Asia (SEA) Games in November. In addition, centralised training camps are also being planned for as part of the team’s preparations for these tournaments.”
Former Malaysia Cup hero-defender of the 1970s Robert Sim says: “Pulling out of a tournament is easy, whilst preparing a competitive side to participate in an International tournament is not easy. The FAS takes the easy way out. For experience and exposure, it will be very good for our youth team to play in such tournament. FAS should have seen this tournament coming and should have prepared the team for it.”
The element of “chickening out” holds water as the Young Lions had been drawn in the AFF date with the experienced Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and host Cambodia.
Schoolteacher Rahim Johari of Yishun Avenue 4 says: “I don’t understand why from a development perspective at least, you should let slip a chance to play quality youth international opponents…and even pay $10,000 fine for that!”
For architect Julie Yeong, of Commonwealth Avenue, “the only explanation could be that we don’t want to face the criticism if we do badly…and going by recent results of the first-team to the age-group teams, the FAS thinks they will do badly.”
Former FAS Deputy General Secretary P. Sivakumar appeals to the FAS to understand that the “teams need to play more matches with national teams at the various age group levels to remain competitive. That’s what Fandi Ahmad and all other FAS Coaches have said”.
He wrote over Facebook: “When you have a competition that gives you actual top-level matches at the Asean level, like the AFF Under 22 organised…it’s excellent preparations for higher-level ties like the AFC Under 22 and the SEA Games.”
He noted that “as per the competition rules and regulations, FAS will be fined…and I wonder who will pay, sponsors or taxpayers?”.
Sivakumar, who is now a regional AFF & AFC Match Commissioner, asks: “Is this the ‘unique ecosystem’? Really, FAS? Please enlighten Singapore football fans the rationale l behind this decision.”
Prominent lawyer Lau Kok Keng, who stood last year as a FAS Presidential candidate, expressed disappointment, too. He said: “I would have thought that playing Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Cambodia would have been a good warm-up for the AFC matches against Mongolia, North Korea and Hong Kong.
WHAT’S BETTER OPTION?
“It’s certainly a better option than to play pre-season friendlies against Malaysian club sides or against Balestier and Hougang in the Singapore Professional League (SPL).
“The FAS General-Secretary referred to the ‘quality of preparation’ as being one of the deciding factors. This suggests that we are not confident about getting decent results from the AFF U-22 tournament, and would prefer to avoid the prospect of losing badly and attracting more public criticism as a result.
“Still, I think the experience gained from playing international teams in competitive matches will benefit the Young Lions more than from playing friendlies and domestic league matches. Present results are not everything if there is a longer term objective to work towards.”
Former FAS general-secretary Steven Tan, ranked as one of the best FAS administrators over the past half-century, said: “Exactly the same thoughts which went through my mind. But then it is not surprising with the same old story of taking several steps back with each decision.
“I can’t comprehend from the outside though…perhaps the decision-makers have their good reasons, whatever those reasons might be. From the camouflaged statement, I can only conclude that the reason is to avoid disruption to the SPL fixtures if they have to play in the AFF and AFC events plus additional time slots for centralised training sessions. Obviously the objectives are in disarray!”
National Football League (NFL) secretary of South Avenue FC Omar Alim says: “I share the disappointing sentiments. Lim Kia Tong (FAS President) and the team must let us know where the $10,000 fine is coming from. It’s a cruel mistake, in my opinion. The AFF is always a crucial base-factor for regional exposure. It’s a shame we’re just avoiding to play after confirming and now forced to pay the AFF fine for a last-minute pull-out.”
Now for the moment of truth: The focus of attention will be on the AFC Under-23 Qualifiers from March 22 to 26, under freezing conditions in Mongolia, with temperatures hovering between -3 degrees Celsius and -21 degrees Celsius in March, according to the weather websites.
God be with the Young Lions as they’re grouped with three Asian upstarts, host Mongolia, North Korea and Hong Kong.
The top teams from the 11 groups and the four best runners-up will join host Thailand in the AFC Finals to be played next year. And the top-three finishers at the U-23 Finals will also qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Pray tell me, FAS, if you don’t garner exposure and experience at Asean (AFF) level, how can you go to higher playing fields at Asian (AFC) territory? Whoever made this late pull-out decision is probably sending the Young Lions to an imminent slaughter-house for a possible high-end beating.