From Goal 2010 to Gold 2015

"This boy is extraordinary. He's one of the most promising players we've had in a while... so he should definitely be in the team." Former national youth coach R Suria Murthi on Adam Swandi (above).

It is the most painful statistic in Singapore football.

Despite the numerous Malaysia Cup triumphs and the three Asean Football Federation titles, the South-east Asia Games football gold has constantly eluded Singapore.

On Sunday, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing said that he was "quietly confident" Singapore could claim that "most important" gold in 2015, when the SEA Games will return to the Republic.

So what will that team in 2015 look like?

Some have suggested blooding the national Under-17 team - known popularly to the public as the YOG boys following their exploits at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010 - to form the backbone of the team in 2015.

Others say Under-16 captain Adam Swandi and his team-mates, who thrilled their way to second place at the Canon Lion City Cup on Sunday, should lead the way.

Coaches TNP spoke to, however, suggested blending in several different batches of promising youngsters, as opposed to depending on one generation of players to form the bulk of the team.

Former national youth team coach R Suria Murthi said: "The best players should play. You shouldn't just focus on one batch or one team.

"You'll probably get only four or five very good players each batch so you need three or four different years to make a good team."

He pointed to the SEA Games bronze medal-winning team of 2007 as an ideal set-up.

Said Suria: "That was a good example of what we need in 2015. Then, we had players from four generations - Shahril Ishak's 1984 batch, Khairul Amri's 1985 batch, Isa Halim's 1986 batch, and Shahdan Sulaiman from 1987."

But Suria stressed that 16-year-old starlet Adam's inclusion in the 2015 team was a sure bet. "This boy is extraordinary," said Suria, who played alongside Adam's father, Swandi Kitto, at Tampines Rovers.

"He's one of the most promising players we've had in a while so we must take care of him for the next three or four years. He should definitely be in the team because he is an outstanding talent."

The former Lion also named YOG boys like defender Dhukhilan Jeevamani and forwards Brandon Koh, Jonathan Tan and "Gelek Prince" Hanafi Akbar as those who could make the cut in three years' time.

The coach of the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-17, R Balasubramaniam, agreed with Suria's selections.

But the former Woodlands Wellington coach, who is assisting Japanese Takuma Koga at the NFA, warned about the pitfalls facing the young players.

"This is a very crucial period for them because there will be distractions and influence from their peers," said Bala.

"They must know what their goal is - if they really want to make it, they need to keep focused. "Three years is not a long time, but anything can happen. Promising players we talk about today might not make it that far."

The NFA Under-17s are struggling in the Prime League this season, are currently third from bottom in the Under-23 league.

But Balestier Khalsa Prime League coach Kevin Wee, who has coached at the level for seven years, is not worried for them.

Said the coach: "No disrespect to anyone, but the Under-17s have always struggled when they play in the Prime League.

"But you can see that they tend to do well as the Under-18s. Look at Robin Chitrakar's team in 2010 and Saswadimata Dasuki's team this year, who are currently in second place.

"Their maiden year in the Prime League has helped and it's proven to be a correct direction taken by the FAS in terms of developing these players."

Wee also suggested that the team in 2015 could be built around the likes of Shahfiq Ghani and his 1992 batch, who finished runners-up in the Prime League in 2010 as the NFA Under-18 team.

The coaches TNP spoke to also mentioned the likes of Shahfiq's teammates at the Courts Young Lions now and players born in 1992 like Faris Ramli and Al-Qaasimy Rahman as those who could be important faces when the SEA Games comes to town.

Their juniors, the trio of Iqbal Hamid, Nurullah Hussein and Fareez Farhan, who played in the NFA together, were also picked as potential stars.

Wee also named Nur Ridho Jafri, Fuad Ramli and Dong Junming as players in the current NFA Under-18 team as those who could make the step up.

But Bala cautioned against expecting too much from the team competing in 2015, saying: "It is still early now, so we have got to give them the best preparation so that they have every chance of achieving the target.

"But there is already pressure because they're playing at home and gold is the target set." Suria, however, thinks that 2015 could be the closest Singapore gets to the gold medal for a few years.

"This is our best chance," he said.

"If you nurture all these players well from now on - bring them overseas for tournaments and to gain experience - then we have a good chance.

"We've reached the final at home once before in 1983, so we can do it again."

msazali@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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