Listen Up FAS

What Singapore wants the FAS to know

Why the 50k won’t work

Like most people, my reaction to this rule was anger, disgust and pure disbelief. I couldn’t understand how the S-League could introduce league rules unheard of in any sport from any era.

Before getting into why it clearly wouldn’t work and some solutions. I first tried to wear the hat of the rule maker. For that to happen I got into the following character: I am an individual with no sporting background, I am an individual who has been sheltered from real market forces for most or majority of my career and without me knowing, I possess an air of superiority from years of environmental reinforcement. Lastly, I have behind me invincible forces that catapult me to senior roles despite my apparent lack of fit.  Let us empathize with his situation.

With myself firmly in this mental mold, I gave myself the task ‘doing something’ to stigmatize clubs who consistently finish near or at the bottom in an effort to boost their performance.

My first consideration was of course a relegation system. The problem with this solution is extremely apparent, the gap between our division 1 and S-League is too big and their structures so different that it would be impossible to accommodate an S-League team dropping or the promotion of a Division 1 team. This gap exists on every single level that constitutes a football club; players, management, finances etc.

A quick illustration: Majority of division 1 player’s play part time, with promotion into the S-League, few would forgo their real jobs with the risk of relegation the next season. For the S-League players that got relegated, few will follow their team down into Div 1 given their significant or total loss of income. Hence the reality is that most of the relegated S-League players will join the promoted Div 1 team while the relegated S-League team will look to employ the players of the promoted Div 1 team. The team switches but the players remain.

So now, my character has 2 solutions:

  1. The formidable (but not impossible) task of raising the profile of Division 1 to negate the situation illustrated above.
    1. This has maximum benefit across all levels of the game; coaches, players, physios, kit men etc
    2. Introduce synthetic rules that mimic relegation. Something that can be accomplished with the stroke of the mighty pen.

So my opinion is that my character has chosen option 2 because it is simply the easier and ‘army’ option. ‘I will make you perform based on penalizing and not rewarding you’.

So I can imagine my character saying something like this: “In some of my previous employments, I got a lot of people to do what I wanted with my fear inducing penalty based system. Surely it must work here too!”

What my character has failed to realize is the following:

1.He is reducing what is already an extremely paltry salary; how are footballers supposed to feed their families and do aspiring footballers need more reason NOT to turn pro?

“As a footballer for one of the bottom sides, I am given a paltry salary. A great month is when my team win’s or draw’s some games or if I score the odd goal. Then I go home with a salary that makes my wife and kids, parents and myself live decently in a 3-5 room HDB flat. I have without a shadow of a doubt that some portion of the 50k will come from salary reductions and I simply wouldn’t be able to make ends meet anymore”

Have you considered this rule maker?

2. The standard of football will not be raised

On paper behind a desk, putting salaries on the line will see players run, shoot and jump for their ‘lives’. Surely this Gladiator-esque approach will please blood-thirsty fans!

Now consider this rule maker:

“I train 5 hours a day like everyone else, I play 36 games like everyone else and I do the best I can give my club’s infrastructure and coaching staff. How is this fear of losing the ability to feed my children going to make me a better footballer?”

So my character has potentially chased away the entire squad for the bottom 3 teams.

“See you S-League, I’m gonna get a job that doesn’t penalize me for doing my job!”

3. A coach can do wonders, but how can you fault what one does not have or know?  

“As coach, I would have either inherited a certain squad and/or have inferior infrastructure and/or simply not have had sufficient world class coaching experiences. How do you expect me to work miracles if I don’t find myself in the right environment or be equipped with similar skills as my European counterparts?

So now coaches will have to suffer a pay cut too.

“I’m better off coaching schools; working with kids who are eager to learn, school administrators who have a much more intelligent outlook on sports and parents who love seeing their kids develop character beyond what is attainable in the classroom.  To cap it off, I am offered a whole lot more respect given my exploits as an ex Singapore national player. ”

“See you S-League!”

4.       Financial repercussions

To those who don’t know, every S-League team is given an annual budget as participants of the S-League. Clubs are then left on their own to source sponsorships to supplement this budget.

Now say for example, the club finishes last. I am extremely confident no single s-league club will fork out 50k cash on the last day of the season and hand it over in a briefcase to the FAS. Given their obvious participation in the following season’s S-League, it is my guess that this 50k will be ‘cut’ from their following year’s budget.

This has 2 serious implications:

a. Clubs enter a vicious penalty cycle: Clubs given their reduced budgets will look to either field more Prime League players or force their S-League players into part-time contracts. Both of this having the effect of a reducing the club’s payroll. With a squad make up as such, clubs will most definitely fair worse compared to their previous season(s).  Unless Zidane’s 16 year old son (and this new Messi kid from AC Milan) decide to sign as a Prime League players, clubs would now find themselves in the rule maker’s induced vicious cycle.

b. Club’s start to gamble: In a bid to overcome the 50k deficit and to ensure they don’t face the penalty again, clubs do a ‘Leeds United’. They break the bank and sign players clearly beyond their financial capabilities. These investments only produce favorable returns under the assumption of a top 6 finish for example. This on any level is not sustainable.

Both outcomes are detrimental to the game.

Now for the solutions:

The foundation of all my solutions will always be to build GROUND-UP! Think how Germany ignored short-term success for their current crop of Ozil’s , how the Spanish ground up philosophy has built without a doubt the best team ever to grace the game. Singapore has neglected this in favor of Brazilians who come here, cash in and then cash out and return to Brazil. Yes shame on you Egmar Goncalves.

The case of relegation is a tricky one. Can Singaporeans stomach a 2 tiered league given their problems simply digesting just the S-League?

The current 10 year plan methodology is clearly the brainchild of old people who are no longer relevant in today’s economy.  Instead, let’s have a strategy that most start-ups utilize. Let’s unleash the Minimum Viable Product and iterate from thereon based on market feedback.

The root of the problem is that Division 1 teams can’t afford to pay decent salaries to their players and they therefore can’t turn pro. To solve this problem, we need to think of growing the league’s top-line and this can be achieved by firstly improving  Division 1 as a product (long overdue).

1.       Organisation and professionalism – FAS needs to start giving Division 1 the respect it deserves

Believe or not, some division 1 teams are run on par or superior to that of S-League teams. They have incredible players, management and sponsors. The baffling bit is that FAS is way off pace in matching the leagues professionalism. Referees don’t show up, flood lights don’t work, pitches are flooded and referees don’t give cards to their pals.

The solution here is too obvious worth mentioning…  JUST RUN A LEAGUE PROPERLY.  Don’t think I have to get into specifics.

2.       Exposure and reach:

On the web:

i.      For starters, a website similar to what the S-League has. Offering news, fixtures, player info etc

ii.      Advertisers have web real estate on their teams page

iii.      If people know where and when the games are, you could even expect an increase in attendance

Issue the development of Division 1 website and each individual club’s website to a single web development company.  You instantly get a more coherent and professional image not to mention a better deal.

Side note: Individual S-League clubs have laughable websites now.

Physically:

i.      Why not schedule Division 1 games before all Jalan Besar kick-offs. That way fans rolling into the stadium early could catch some football and get exposed to these teams. (not advisable for natural turfs)

ii.      Have a man of the match give away broadcasted live on television before the kick-off of the S-League game.

iii.      Advertisers will love the increased exposure.

These measures are inexpensive and in the case of operations and professionalism, completely necessary.

We could look to assess what effects such measures have on a company’s willingness to sponsor. If these measures prove to be successful, we could then look to further enhance the product in these areas. Otherwise, there’s no shame in failing and its back to the drawing board. This is the advantage of not having super long press releases, giant Styrofoam balls and all that ‘taik lembu’ associated with a 10 year plan. You become fast, you become nimble and you respond.

The key here is professionalism and improve the standing of Division 1 as a product. If this is pulled off, you could potentially see S-League clubs willing to send some of their promising youngsters on loan to these Division 1 clubs to enhance their development (Beckham went to Preston North End!). Freshly recovered S-League players could be sent on loan to Division 1 clubs to gain match fitness instead of wasting their time in the Prime League.

Their appeal to sponsors would be significantly heightened and perhaps Singapore Pools starting to take bets for Division 1? This however has to be carefully implemented as the lure of bribes and match fixing could surface.

I would like to point out that I’m not saying these measures alone will see professional players in Division 1 and therefore the possibility of promotion-relegation. What i’m saying is, these are the first few steps we could take to get there…

How about making the S-League more exciting, competitive and attractive?

I would then refer you to my previous post. In this post you will find a long list of solutions. The idea is simple, if you have a well -developed grassroots program, many problems can be avoided and if really not the case, we would be in a situation where all stakeholders are more equipped to find a solution.

My apologies if the article lacks coherence especially towards the end. It’s late and I want to sleep. I’m not here to win a Pulitzer prize, just to stir some debate and make the FAS realize that if they just engaged the community that many logical and practical solutions can be crafted and implemented.

I however understand that if I continue to write like this my credibility will take a blow so rest assured the next few posts will be more articulate and edited for starters J

I welcome all comments!

I don’t care if I’m wrong, I just want my debate to produce good solutions.

Local Football; Post 2011 Suzuki Cup diagnosis and suggested treatment(s)

Written hastily on the morning of 9th January 2011. Published as is without any edits:

The problems we see in the S-League and the national team are NOT problems at all. They are merely symptoms of a bigger and larger problem; a complete underinvestment in youth and grassroots football development in Singapore.

Let me put this in a way most Singaporeans would understand: Imagine sending someone to university with little or sporadic prior education. What kind of results do you think that person will produce? Well the answer is pretty simple, just look at what we got out of the ‘lions’ in the Suzuki Cup and the quality of most S-League games.

Would it be fair then for us to criticize the student? Kick him out of school because of his poor results? Or do we punish the person who sent him there?

If you think the student should be punished, i suggest you read no further and consider applying for a job at the FAS. You will find many like minded people there and if you work hard NOT to change your mindset, the top FAS job should be yours in less than 5 years (you’d have to be in parliment also, which means you’d have both manage your constituency and football. Ridiculous if you ask me).

The Current Situation:

A primary 1 kid in Singapore today can look forward to 16 – 18 years of solid academic development and come out being one of the best in the world.  Compare that to the path of sport and specifically football, a primary 1 kid has virtually nothing. The situation for primary 1 kids in top footballing nations though is very different.

While i have no empirical results to suggest the following: I am guessing that if we compared 5 year olds from all across the world, the difference in footballing ability will be negligible. The conclusion to be drawn then is that they go through a process of development so enriching that 20 years later, they lift World Cup trophies while we Singaporeans lift our PlayStation controllers in the game of Winning Eleven.

 

The National Football Academy (NFA)

The NFA only benefits 20-25 players per age group. Picking these 20-25 players in itself is a questionable process but that aside, this lot represent less than 1% of that age group’s population. The remaining 99% are truly ignored by the FAS. Most continue to develop via their soccer CCA’s in school and increasingly many develop via Social Leagues. For a Football Association, this statistic itself illustrates what a ridiculous job it’s doing.

Once formed, the same lot advance to the older age groups without much fear of competition. That is to say, if you have the luck of being chosen for the U14 team, you are more or less guaranteed to seamlessly advance all the way to the U-18 team before ‘graduating’ from the NFA. At the NFA level, besides short tournament and overeas training trips, most of their exposure comes in the form of the U-17 and U-18 team’s participation in the Prime League. These 2 teams train everyday and would arguably have the best and most conducive set up. Most other prime-league teams train 3 times and often get little pitch and coach time as most of the clubs resources are funnelled towards their s-league teams.

I got a firsthand experience of how ‘great’ a job the NFA/FAS was doing in 2006 when the Victoria JC team i was playing for drew 0-0 with the U-18 team at their home ground, The Jalan Besar Stadium.

Top NFA ‘graduates’ then move up to the Young Lions where they are exposed to the S-League while those who dont, end up joining clubs as prime league players; a huge blow to their development.

Sports School

‘The biggest mistake of my life’ is how one Sports School graduate described his time there. He trained twice a day for 4 years only to graduate and find himself in academic and sporting no man’s land. He had the privilege of travelling to Europe for some training stints and winning both the ‘C’ and ‘B’ division tournament but as far as continuous and systematic development is concerned, he was shocked to find it all coming to an abrupt end when he graduated. He now finds himself at one of the local clubs training at intensities that hardly gets his heart rate going. All his international training and exposure seemingly gone to waste. For the government, it represents a ridiculous use of resources with obviously no long-term strategy in mind.

Problems with these programs, the FAS and MCYS:

NFA Exclusivity and Player Overlap

The NFA only develops at any time 100-120 players across all their age groups. This might sound like a lot but it represents only one team per age group! That’s right, the FAS relies on developing just these 4-5 teams to take us to the World Cup. Majority of Sports School kids are actually in the NFA and vice-versa. So effectively you have most of the players being developed simultaneously by 2 programs.

 

Poor Team objectives

With NFA and Sports School participating in both the Inter-School League and the Prime League, the focus seems to only be the best in Singapore. The organisations don’t seem to have any ambition to be best anywhere outside our country. This clearly shows as we seem to fair terribly on the international stage.

Ignorance and wastage

With more than 99% of each age group’s population left untouched by the FAS, the overall quality of football in Singapore is never addressed and therefore will fail to improve. The effects of such a policy are already on display in the S-League. The role of developing youth is left ultimately to schools who themselves have only short term goals. As a result, plenty of good school players are left in limbo.

 Escapees

The NFA never publishes any statistics of its NFA graduating batch but i can tell you that almost 90% of the U18 batch of 2006 are not involved in local football anymore. Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on coaching, facilities, player allowance and overseas trips amongst other expenses have gone down the drain.

MCYS/FAS just dont get Singaporeans

Singaporeans are crazy about football. We pay top dollar just to watch the EPL, own EPL merchandise and head on pilgrimage trips to European stadiums. The FAS has failed to tap into both the physical and monetary support that we Singaporeans possess. Furthermore with $387 million spent of a YOG where no single Singaporean athlete benefited, our government needs to stop caring about what foreigners think of Singapore and spend money where it is needed. I understand how such spectacles are meant to showcase the efficiency of a country, think the Beijing Olympics and how it boosted the world’s perception of China but I am struggling to figure out who exactly we need to prove ourselves to and if any tangible benefits were achieved. (Any tourism boosts? Investment inflows? David Beckham wanting to play in the S-League while the MLS takes a summer break?)

MCYS/FAS having no clue about grassroots development

It amazes me that the biggest grassroots footballing movement in Singapore, the ESPZEN League had to be conceived and run by a private company. Why couldn’t the MCYS/FAS hatch and run this league instead? They could have stirred up some kind of FA cup romance of our own seeing some Sunday soccer team up against some S-League club in the 4th round of our Singapore FA cup.

 MCYS/FAS having no clue about football club history and fan affinities

It needs no mentioning that every club in Europe represents a city. While they are all internationally recognised clubs now, their success has to be attributed to the local support that each of these clubs got from an earrly age. Such support exists purely because of the affinity that people have for their towns. Just look at the stadiums in Selangor, Sunderland, Seville and Sampdoria. They really love their town!

Our S-League fails to capture any sort of affinity with the town in which the clubs are based. No surprise when residents in Toa Payoh have Balestier Khalsa, residents in Chua Chu Kang have SAFFC and residents in Bishan have Home Utd. (Kudos to Sengkang Punggol getting renamed to Hougang FC). This to me is a very logical explanation as to why attendances are extremely poor even with free admission to games. (If there was a Potong Pasir Football Club in the S-League, i would get season tickets)

Clubs as failed businesses

Every S-League club is a failed business. Period. All the advertising dollar that exists in the S-League today are procured from either the businesses of the club chairman’s themselves or through favours. I’m not exactly sure what’s in it for such chairman’s but i’m sure some tax incentives are definitely present. Beyond these tax incentives, there is simply no benefit for any business to advertise with/in the S-League. It not only has a pathetic reach but the demographics it reaches out to will fail to command any kind of advertising dollar. Last but certainly not least, club merchandising along with television revenue is non-existent.

My weak defence for FAS/MCYS

We need to realise that Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard are NOT products of the FA’s of Argentina, Portugal and England. Rather, they are products of Barcelona, Manchester Utd and Liverpool. It makes perfect business sense for these clubs to invest in youth as the cost of acquiring such talent later on are enormous (Ronaldo’s 80 million compared to Barca taking Messi in when he was just a kid and developing him to what he is today).

Unfortunately, the club dynamics that exist in those European leagues (its competitiveness both domestically and Euro-wide, the mega business of football, television revenue etc) simply do not exist here. The current climate provides no incentive for SAF or Home United to train a kid from age 8 till he is ready to burst onto the S-League.

The blame therefore should not lie completely with the FAS as local clubs themselves are not doing enough to develop talent. Having said that, it has to be noted that all clubs are governed by rules and systems that have been put together by the FAS in the first place.

  

Solutions:

 Ignorance and wastage + MCYS/FAS having no clue about grassroots development + MCYS/FAS just dont get Singaporeans + MCYS/FAS having no clue about football club history and fan affinities + Clubs as failed businesses  

 

With schools the only source of youth (duh), more needs to be done to the current sporting systems in schools. This again should not be undertaken independently by the schools themselves but rather through collaborations with the FAS and clubs. It’s a win-win situation; schools getting healthier kids with superior characters shaped by sports and FAS tapping into a ready framework and subconsciously riding on the strong affinity people usually have for their schools.

The aim is to keep the non NFA 99% of the population involved. This can be done by spreading out the fixtures of the current school tournament schedule (it’s currently a mad 2-3 month tournament rush and then 8 months of no football) or by redrawing the tournament styles altogether from quickly ending cup style tournaments into a more realistic and competitive league format.

Students will then have a more realistic academic and sporting life balance instead of forgetting about studies completely for the duration of their current short tournaments as is the current case. More matches means greater exposure and more opportunities for national youth team scouts to conduct meaningful scouting for the high performance NFA category. Only through raising the overall level of footballing quality can you raise the level at the top.

To help schools with such projects, the FAS or clubs can send their coaches or players both retired and active (extra source of income) to schools within their zone either to oversee the programs or to simply conduct clinics. With schools, kids and naturally their parents forging a closer and more personal relationship with the clubs and its players, Singaporeans might once again make room in their hearts for local football. There is a chance that this program alone could see more Singaporeans walking into our empty stadiums.

The cost of implementing such a program would need to be worked out but given how the FAS and Clubs merely act as service providers, this program should not cost much. Even if it were to cost 3 million a year to run, the YOG budget itself could sustain the program for 100 years(barring inflation of course).

Renaming clubs to accurately represent the towns they operate from definitely has to be the next step. Imagine then a hypothetical Potong Pasir FC, actively involved in football programs in St Andrews Junior, Secondary and Junior College fostering relationships with parents and kids of the school. Imagine the team walking around the neighbourhood giving out free jerseys, tickets, merchandise and pausing for photos with hawkers and having their photos put up the way Channel 8 artists are hung all around hawker centres.

These clubs could really have a part to play in building a sense of community and in the process developing resident’s affinity towards them. In the future, clubs can look to these fans as sources for increased TV viewer ship (TV/ad money), increased attendance (gate receipts) and very possibly merchandise sales.

On a lighter note, given Singaporeans love for betting, punters who shake hands with players will think they they’re up on luck and head to the nearest Singapore Pools. So no matter what, everybody wins!!

NFA Exclusivity and Player Overlap

With the wider reaching developmental plan as explained above, the NFA would now have an even larger pool of talent to choose from.  This pool would definitely include players from different backgrounds and styles. The NFA though would need to work hard in scouting and welcoming this huge talent pool and ensuring that top performers (regardless of background) at the school level are invited for selections for the NFA. The NFA though would have to begin yearly reselections ensuring that no single spot on the NFA is taken for granted.

 Poor Team objectives

Plenty of options here: We could develop an ASEAN, SE-Asia or even a Malaysia Cup based youth cup/league. The goal of all these overseas tournaments would be to drive in the mentality in our players that we want to be best in Asia and not just to be the best in Singapore.

Escapees

We cannot allow players to simply walk away from football at a whim after being on the receiving end of such an expensive program. My suggestion would be for them to contribute (for a short period of time) via assisting in the programmes and clinics as mentioned above if they indeed choose to stop playing.

I will conclude by saying that the FAS needs to show itself the red card and not make scapegoats out of the Suzuki Cup team. That team is the product of the policies of the FAS.

Have a look at the FAS committee; I’m struggling to understand how a bunch of people with little or no prior experience in football are occupying top positions…

It’s no surprise that the FAS’s performances have been…  wait a minute…