A European footballing revolution in Singapore

by Pavan Mano

European football has a long-established tradition of developing technically gifted youngsters – it’s a significant part of the entire European footballing system that prides itself on developing young players who go on to represent their respective national teams.

Slightly over a decade ago, borrowing European ideas and best practices, a small nation in South-east Asia began to try to emulate the European youth development system – and it’s beginning to show results, nearly 13 years on.

In 2000, the tiny island of Singapore established the National Football Academy (NFA) with the aim of “developing Singapore’s most promising young footballers” and grooming them to “develop to their fullest potential (and) eventually represent Singapore.”

For a small country of around five million, simply harbouring the ambition of steadily producing top quality footballers was rather far-fetched. Harbouring that ambition in a country where formal education and grades were (and continue to be) highly-valued, often at the expense of sporting pursuits, was perhaps something that might only have been considered a pipe dream.

Singapore’s Adam Swandi going toe-to-toe with AFC Ajax’s Teun van Zweeden

Thirteen years on though, the NFA’s youth development efforts are starting to pay off. Recently, a number of young Singaporean footballers have begun to move out of the country to try and establish themselves in Europe. Talented winger Adam Swandi has just signed a two year contract with FC Metz of France; one of their brightest defenders, Bryan Neubronner, recently signed a one-and-a-half year deal with SSV Ulm of Germany; Irfan and Ikhsan, sons of (arguably) the country’s greatest ever player, Fandi Ahmad, just signed on with Hercules of Spain; there are also a couple of other younger players who are in Europe on youth training stints as well with well-established clubs like Ajax Amsterdam.

Clearly Singapore is doing something right and it is worth noting that their youth system is very much modelled on famous continental youth systems: La Clairefontaine of France, La Masia in Spain, and the famous Ajax Academy in Holland. Singapore’s NFA shares a number of practices with them that might go some way towards explaining how this tiny island-nation-state is now starting to churn out talented young players.

In Europe (save for England maybe), the footballing schools believe very firmly in playing small-sided games at a young. Youngsters don’t play in teams larger than four until they are 16 years of age. The coaches at Clairefontaine and the other academies believe kids below 16 are unable to fully comprehend, tactically, the scale of any team larger than 4. Emphasis is therefore heavily placed on ball retention and technique on-the-ball.

An emphasis on small-sided futsal games is helping Singaporean youth develop better technical ability

Similarly, in Singapore, the boys who come through the NFA system frequently play small-sided games – the result is evident in the technically gifted players we are now starting to see: Swandi and Neubronner are examples of players who are very comfortable on the ball and adept at using it intelligently.

In 2009, then-Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee visited Singapore as part of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of Asia. While he was in the country, he met with officials of the NFA and affirmed the system that Singapore was using to develop players and stressed how vital it was to begin developing players while they were still young and able to absorb new motor skills a lot faster.

An interesting feature of the Singapore youth system, that Lee also remarked upon, is the fact that juniors who are in the midst of developing a potential footballing career continue their educations in schools; this is very similar to how it is done at Clairefontaine and La Masia. Of course, because of geographical proximity, in Europe the footballing academies integrate classes into the schedule; in Singapore the NFA works closely with the country’s Ministry of Education to ensure that the young boys aren’t neglected academically even as they train with the NFA.

The advantage of such a system is that it provides young players with a back-up plan, an out, if things were not to work out in terms of a professional footballing career – a reassurance, essentially, that chasing a sporting dream is not (or no longer) an all-or-nothing quest.

In Singapore, where traditional, conservative mind-sets still hold true, simply convincing parents to allow their children to pursue a sporting career is often met with resistance. The NFA has created a compromise-solution that allows both interests to be met – it might be fair to say it’s working because some encouraging results are beginning to show.

If all goes well, the boys from Singapore who have just left to ply their trade in Europe should fit in with their respective clubs and continue developing further – if they do, it will undoubtedly be a huge fillip for Singapore football; having players playing in Europe represents a huge step forward for the Singaporean youth development system. More importantly, it should persuade (and hopefully convince) more budding young players to take a potential footballing career seriously and devote more time to it, allowing Singapore’s footballing scene to flourish even further.

For Singaporean football fans though, what they can do now is to sit back and watch their boys give their best shot at making a career for themselves in Europe; they have a more than good chance of doing just that – after all, they have come through a system that is European in almost every sense other than name.

This article was first published on Breakfast Network, a Singaporean news website, as a commentary on Singapore football’s youth development system.

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