BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
It could be awhile before the next generation of Singaporean footballers could feature in the Malaysia Super League (MSL), said Lions legend Fandi Ahmad candidly.
When MSL clubs were allowed to sign one ASEAN player beginning in the 2018 season, on top of one Asian import and three from the rest of the world, four Singapore internationals graced the Malaysian top tier; Hariss Harun (JDT), Safuwan Baharudin (Pahang), Faris Ramli (PKNS FC) and Shahdan Sulaiman (Melaka United). Hariss had been with the Southern Tigers since 2014, while Safuwan had been playing in Malaysia since 2016.
While Faris and Shahdan have departed their clubs after the season ended, the coming season will see the arrival of one more Singapore international; defender Shakir Hamzah at Kedah, under Singaporean head coach Aidil Sharin Sahak.
While the quartet has given a good account of themselves across the Causeway, Fandi is of the opinion that their juniors may require some time before they meet the standards required to play abroad.
He was met by the press last Thursday, after his club, Singapore Premier League's Young Lions took on his former club Kuala Lumpur (FA) in a pre-season friendly in Kuala Lumpur, which ended in a 4-0 win to the hosts.
The 56-year old played for KL between 1986 and 1989, winning the 1987 Malaysia Cup, and the 1988 division one title and Malaysia Cup with the City Boys. He has also won Malaysian titles with Singapore and LionsXII as player and as coach, when teams from the city state still featured in Malaysian competitions.
"I am proud that they have been playing for the likes of JDT and Pahang and I hope there will be more. But for the time being, we (Singaporean football) are in transition. It's harder to develop players due to certain internal issues. For example, the previous squad of my team played splendidly, but they have since left to join the compulsory military service. So you see what we're up against.
"Sure, there are boys who could make it in Malaysia in the footsteps of Hariss and Safuwan, despite the improving standards here. I hope we'll be able to fix the weaknesses of our system and unearth more talented footballers within the next five or six years. And they need to play abroad in order to help improve themselves, as well as the national team.
"...We're the only ASEAN country with this kind of problem, that's why our standards have gone down a little bit. Hopefully we can maintain the players' motivation when it's not easy if they miss one or two years' of training," said the former Groningen player.
For this reason, he's happy that the recent iteration of the Singaporean league has reflected the need to develop more young players, by instituting several club roster changes beginning in the 2018 season.
"We had not given the youngsters sufficient opportunity, and they tended to lose out to the more senior players. It was very difficult for boys aged 18, 19 and 20 years to get first team action at their clubs.
"Now we have Young Lions, who employ young players and no foreigners, as well as the new league rulings, which I think are good. Otherwise, the young boys would not get the chance and they would lose the motivation to continue playing. We can't let that happen, we need to keep them in the game; in a country as small as Singapore is, we need as many players as we can get," remarked the former Singapore national team caretaker coach.
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