Late last year, news broke that Brazil had overtaken the United Kingdom as the world’s sixth-largest economy, as revealed by “a team of economists” (Who are they? Where are they from? Do they like sports?). Long dominant in the football arena, now the Brazilians are even beating the Brits at economics! Their rise up the rankings was helped by a 7.5% increase in spending last year, in addition to high exports to China and the Far East.
Hang on, “Brazilian exports”? Cue the oft-repeated joke about footballers being Brazil’s biggest exports. Though in reality, there is some truth to it. Players with green and gold coursing through their veins ply their trade all over the world, spreading the gospel of joga bonito to places as far flung as Nepal and Moldova.
Ah, but A Seleção’s reach isn’t just limited to club sides. Unlike club football, players aren’t allowed to be transferred between national sides (although The Independent reported otherwise, last April Fools’ Day), yet several Brazilian players have gone on to represent nations other than the one they were born in.
In recent times, Deco Sousa donned the colours of Portugal, Amauri and Thiago Motta have represented Italy, while Marcos Senna famously won the 2008 European Championship with adopted country Spain. Further afield, Francileudo dos Santos averaged a goal every 2 games for Tunisia and Alessandro “Alex” Santos was a key player for Japan at the 2002 World Cup.
Before Spain offered the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas passports in the 1950s, Italy had drafted three Argentines (Raimundo Orsi, Attilio Demaria, and Luis Monti) to help them win the 1934 World Cup. So as you can see, the practice of adopting foreign-born players to boost your side’s prowess on the international stage is nothing new. However, the national team of Singapore have taken it to a whole new level.
At the risk of prying open old wounds, let’s go way back to July last year, when the Malaysian national football team lost 4-6 on aggregate to our South-East Asian neighbours Singapore in the second round of Asian World Cup 2014 Qualifying. Sour grapes all round, as many Malaysians whined that the island republic’s victory was a hollow one, since all six of their goals were scored by their naturalised players.
Shi Jiayi, Aleksandr Duric, Mustafic Fahrudin, Qiu Li, and Daniel Bennett. A veritable United Nations of footballers right there, all representing the red of Singapore. Duric (the world’s most prolific striker, despite being 41 years old) is Bosnian, Fahrudin is a Serb, Bennett’s British, while Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li are from mainland China. So, how did they end up playing international football for a South-East Asian country?
It started in 2000, when the Singapore Foreign Talent Scheme was launched with the aim of identifying and recruiting foreign footballers to plug the gaps in their underperforming national team. Inspired by the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme implemented by the Singapore Table Tennis Association in the early 90’s, the first wave saw the likes of Mirko Grabovac (Croatian), Agu Casmir (Nigerian), and Bennett granted Citizenship in 2002.
And it took just two years for the program to bear fruit. Singapore triumphed in the ASEAN Football Championship (then known as the Tiger Cup) in 2004, beating Indonesia 5-2 over two legs, with Casmir and Bennett scoring three of their five goals. The cup success contributed to their rise up to 92nd in FIFA’s World Rankings, the island republic’s highest position since 1998. Encouraged by their endeavour’s positive results, the Singaporean FA drafted Casmir’s fellow Nigerians Itimi Dickson and Precious Emuejeraye in 2005, as well as Shi and Fahrudin.
Despite arguments that having foreign players of a higher standard raises the quality of local-born players, twelve years have elapsed since the program started, and Singapore are still relying on foreigners to form the core of their team. Slightly unfair then, on the local players who have made a name for themselves in that period. Former-captain Aide Iskandar lifted the ASEAN Cup in 2004, while Noh Alam Shah was one of the region’s deadliest strikers during the mid-2000s. Even now, the national team possess a more-than-capable captain in Shahril Ishak, who has the (Roy, not Robbie) Keane-esque ability to lead by example and drag his team to victory, as well as reliable stalwarts like Haris Harun and Jumaat Jantan.
Foreign players were brought in to “inspire” the locals, and set an exemplary example for them to follow. Raise their standards, so to speak. But a football team is restricted to eleven players, and including one usually comes at the expense of another. Particularly when foreign players form the spine of the team, it can be extremely challenging for a young, promising player to make a break-through. When asked about former national team striker Egmar Goncalves’s decision to leave Singapore to return to Brazil, Noh Alam Shah said, “The good thing is I learnt a lot from him. On the other hand, he was the player who took a striker’s spot in the national team.”
Unsurprisingly, this has turned into quite a dilemma amongst supporters of the national team. Do you compromise on your values and win at all costs? Or do you stick to your guns, and rely on young, home-grown players with potential? They might take a while to gel, but the results can be immensely satisfying. Basically, it’s the Manchester City plan versus the Barcelona model. Buy success? Or nurture it?
As always, nothing is truly black-and-white. Try as they might to emulate Barça , Singapore is a tiny (though densely-packed) island, and their talent pool would obviously be dwarfed by that of say, Indonesia. But like Uruguay, which is similar in size to Singapore (yet they’ve won the Copa America and reached the World Cup semi-finals) the talent is there. But for the most part, the environment to maximise and develop their potential isn’t. Results of a poll conducted on a Singaporean sports website show that readers believed that the government doesn’t develop local talents properly, and that talented locals dropped out to pursue non-sport-related studies and careers. Parents only want the best for their children, and the notion that a career in sports isn’t a stable profession is still firmly mired in Asian culture, although that perception is gradually changing.
All in all, there has been some progress. The Singaporean FA have an agreement with their Malaysian counterparts in which their respective youth teams swaps places in their local leagues. In effect, Harimau Muda A (Young Tigers) have started plying their trade in the S-League, while the Young Lions (newly rebranded as Lions XII) compete in the Malaysian Super League. Both teams have prospered, with (coincidentally) both Lions XII and Harimau Muda A sitting pretty in second place in their respective tables. And the best part? They’re composed solely of national youth team players. Except Lions XII’s Nigerian, Agu Casmir.
Well, I did say “some” progress.
Darren Goon quite likes Singapore. It’s very clean and efficient. Now could you stop beating my national team please