Will Pennant Stag do save the S.League?

Will Pennant Stag do save the S.League?

With one daring and expensive transfer swoop, Tampines Rovers have shown the loyal fans, rival clubs, cynics like me and hopefully the FAS, there is still a future for the floundering S.League.

Jermaine Pennant, the former Arsenal and Liverpool winger, hogged headlines during his week long trial and subsequent transfer to the five-times Singaporean champions , with upto 2,000 fans turning out for a pre-season game just to witness an English Premier League performer in action. Not bad considering attendances for many S.League fixtures are only in the 100s.

The unrivaled attention has been a blessing for a domestic competition which seemed destined for the scrap heap, with fans turning away, media all but giving up and the FAS insistent on pursuing an ASEAN Super League – which the rest of the region seems unsure of – at the detriment of its own domestic product.

Tellingly the Pennant deal is only for one season. In 2017 the ASEAN Super League is scheduled to start and the Lions XII reformed to represent, once again ripping the best local talent away from an already limited S.League pool.

Pennant, who has helped generate the buzz around his arrival by undertaking a noticeably genial attitude to all media, interview and “taste our local food” requests, has already spoken out against the idea. Impressive displays on the pitch and coaxing more bums on seats during the S.League campaign would arguably carry more sway with FAS bosses.

For Tampines, who had already helped the FAS by snapping up a host of out-of-contract Lions XII players caught out by the FAM’s decision to ditch the Singaporean side,  the onus is on them to maintain the marketing push with Pennant and ensure the buzz, attendances and fan engagement continue on an upward trajectory.

Pennant, who has taken a 70% pay cut to play in Singapore, has already helped out by saying he will talk to other Premier League players about coming to Southeast Asia but whether any of the other S.League club chairman have the cash or bravado to complete a similar deal remains to be seen.

The 33-year-old arguably never fulfilled his talent. Once Britain’s most expensive teenager when Arsenal signed him at 15 from Notts County, he became a headline maker for all the wrong reasons and was the first Premier League player to wear an electronic tag after his release from prison.

He makes for an unlikely S.League saviour, but lets hope he can deliver.

 

 

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Time to scrap the S.League?

Time to scrap the S.League?

The conclusion of the Rugby World Cup last month threw up a lot of debate about the role of the different national associations. The winners, New Zealand, and runners-up, Australia, have associations who run club/franchise teams with the aim of ensuring the national team is successful, while the tournament’s biggest underachievers, England, have a domestic league run by private owners who understandably prioritize their own success.

Football Associations have always followed the English rugby model. But with the S.League at a crossroads and the FAS’s last long term plan a failure is it time to adopt a radical re-think?

The current 10-team league, with three foreign clubs, runs up significant bills. Clubs close, merge or sit out seasons routinely because of money issues. The current seven local clubs have close to 30 foreign players. Is spending FIFA grant money on a failing product with such a high foreign interest really to the benefit of the Singapore national team?

Clearly it would be ideal to have a successful league and national team but for smaller nations such as Singapore, sometimes that just isn’t possible.

Even with the Lions XII expected to play in the S.League next season before they run off to the ASEAN Super League the following year, I’m not sure it will make a significant difference to a product that has such a poor reputation.

The Lions XII is a good idea, if placed among adequate competition. Whether that is the ASEAN Super League is another debate.

Singapore boss Bernd Stange was adamant after World Cup defeats by Japan and Syria that his players needed more of everything – coaching and experience. Players needed to be competing in better leagues than Malaysia and Singapore week in and week out, he said.

So, and I don’t say this whimsically, perhaps the S.League as we know it should be scrapped.

Maintain the Lions XII and keep the Young Lions but also play them in a foreign league. Contracting the best 40-45 players to work and train under FAS instruction with bigger budgets, better resources and one consistent coaching pattern determined by their new(ish) technical director Michel Sablon is likely to ensure better results.

There are enough burgeoning amateur football leagues and well funded private youth academies on the island that can fill the void of the unloved S.League which barely gets a mention in The Straits Times.

It is a radical step but one the notoriously cautious FAS should consider.

If Iceland can qualify for Euro 2016 with the lack of population and climate issues with a clever model, then there remains hope for Singapore.

 

AFC Cup, rules for one (Kuwait) and rules for another (Vietnam)?

AFC Cup, rules for one (Kuwait) and rules for another (Vietnam)?

So the AFC Cup will be played on Saturday between Istiklol of Tajikistan and Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim. Because they were the best teams this season and deserving of a place in the final? No, not exactly.

Last month FIFA, engulfed in an unprecedented corruption crisis, decided to ban Kuwait for government interference so Al-Qadsia, who beat JDT 3-1 in the first leg of their semi-final, and Al-Kuwait, who were 4-0 up against Istiklol, were kicked out of the competition through no fault of their own.

Where to start?

The government interference rule in Asia perhaps? Where the royal families in the Middle East all tend to have representation on the local football associations, while other AFC members like Singapore have politicians in charge. Lets not even start with North Korea.

We could wonder why Indonesia were given years of warnings before being punished and Kuwait a matter of weeks, but lets not start that one today.

Instead, I want to ask why defending champions Al-Qadsia and 2009, 2012 and 2013 winners Al-Kuwait were kicked out for government policy yet last year Vietnamese side Vissai Ninh Binh were allowed to continue through to the quarter-finals despite 11 of their players admitting to police they tried to fix a match earlier in the competition against Kelantan of Malaysia.

Ninh Binh did release all of the players found guilty and restarted in the lower leagues in Vietnam after withdrawing from the top flight but it did seem an odd decision to allow them continue in the AFC Cup after such a scandal which involved so many at the club. I’m sure the innocent players of Al-Qadsia and Al-Kuwait might wonder why that was the case as they sit and watch this weekend’s final, a match they should probably be contesting but for matters out of their control.

All the same, good luck to Istiklol and JDT in the final this weekend – they have certainly already enjoyed plenty of it.

Al-Ahli through to first AFC Champions League final in dramatic style

With all the carry on going on in Zurich at FIFA towers of late, it is nice to be able to talk about actions on the field for a change and the thoroughly entertaining AFC Champions League semi-final second leg between Al -Ahli and Al-Hilal last night in Dubai.

The Saudis had been favourites to progress over the two legs but they were held at home after missing a penalty and on Tuesday night only had themselves to blame again as they were knocked out with almost the last kick in the 95th minute of a topsy-turvy match.

Brazilians Lima and Everton Ribeiro had put Al-Ahli 2-0 up on the night and 3-1 on aggregate but some tactical switches at halftime by Al-Hilal boss Giorgos Donis helped the Saudis draw level through Ailton and a stunner from Carlos Eduardo.

Hilal tried to kill the pace of the game in the final 25 minutes rather than go for a third against an Ahli side that had been left ragged by the two goal salvo, which ultimately proved costly. Having sunk deeper and deeper, a free kick swung in by Everton Ribeiro in the 95th minute wasn’t properly cleared and South Korean Kwon Kyung-won gratefully smashed the ball that dropped to him.

View all the goals here.  Some crackers.

And some reaction from my Reuters colleague Matt Smith who was at the game.

Mixed emotions for former Al Hilal boss Olariou after guiding Al Ahli to the final

and his match report

Quite often with the Champions League format we see the same teams contest year after year so nice for Al-Ahli to make it through to a first final. They await the winners of the East Asia semi between Guangzhou Evergrande and Gamba Osaka.

For Al-Hilal, another case of Champions League heartache after they somehow contrived to lose the final to Western Sydney Wanderers last year despite dominating the Australians. And it seems the unforgiving Saudi media are already putting the heat on Donis. Who would be a manager?

Kler Heh, the Southeast Asian refugee excelling with Sheffield United

Kler Heh, the Southeast Asian refugee excelling with Sheffield United

Back in July I spoke with 18-year-old Kler Heh, an ethnic Karen born in a Thai refugee camp near the Myanmar border, who had earned a first contract with Sheffield United in England’s third tier. (Can read the interview here). I’ve been checking the Sheffield United website recently to see how Kler was getting on in the Blades’ under-21 side this term and happy to report things appear to be going well. Nice assist here for the winning goal last week against Bolton Wanderers in the cup.

Kler said he was keen to play for Myanmar or Thailand but because of his refugee status and lack of passport for either country he believed it would be difficult. The piece I wrote seemed to generate lots of interest for Kler and reports in Myanmar said the White Angels had approached him about playing for them. Nothing seems to have happened yet, but perhaps it will after the sacking of  Raddy Avramovic as head coach over the weekend and the promotion of youth team boss Gerd Zeise to the role.

Myanmar have excelled at youth level recently, reaching the under-20s World Cup under Zeise and his appointment as head coach of the national team came with calls for more of the youth players to get a chance at full level.  Perhaps an opportunity for Kler if he continues his good displays for the Blades?

Photo: Kler Heh/Facebook

How to fix Malaysian football? Call FIFA, says the Crown Prince of Johor

How to fix Malaysian football? Call FIFA, says the Crown Prince of Johor

Malaysian football is in a dire way. The 10-0 shellacking from the United Arab Emirates last month in World Cup qualifying was a record defeat. That came off the back of a disappointing group stage exit at the SEA Games and the outcry over the “circus games” the national team played against Liverpool and Tottenham which the Ultras demanded fans boycott. Fan frustration boiled over in the World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia. The most prevalent conversation with friends and journalists of late has been ‘what is going wrong with Malaysian football?’ Many theories are offered but with nothing is ever definitive. Last week I was able to speak with Tunku Ismail ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the president of double defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim. Despite the problems in Malaysia, JDT have been flying the flag in continental competition and are through to the the final of the AFC Cup — thanks in part to the Kuwaiti clubs being kicked out. Tunku Ismail was his usual outspoken self in our 40 minute chat, blaming the Football Association of Malaysia for the issues and describing an organisation unwilling to make the necessary changes. Unfortunately nobody at the FAM would respond to his comments, partly because of their statutes which only allow a certain few members to speak on behalf of the body. Have a read below of the article published on the Reuters wire today and let me know what you think. Is the Crown Prince right?