By Suresh Nair
SEVEN talented junior footballers were banned for vaping (consuming electronic cigarette or e-cigarette) and missed playing for Singapore in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under 14 Tournament.
They were caught allegedly vaping sometime in March and received “one overseas tournament ban”.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) were informed about the disciplinary action and the13-year-olds, described by their coach as “very skilful footballers”, did not play in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, in July, where the Lions had disastrous results, losing three matches and conceding 27 goals (Vietnam 8-0, Myanmar 6-1, Thailand 10-1) and drawing 3-3 with Brunei.
It is reliably learnt FAS Belgian Technical Director Michel Sablon was apparently not informed of this major disciplinary action, prior to the Brunei assignment. When contacted, FAS was not available for comment.
A parent, who identified as Mr Leong, said he was “very disappointed that cover-ups of poor behaviour by the FAS are not setting the right example for young footballers”.
“We’re concerned as parents that the FAS don’t instill enough sense of discipline and character,” he adds. “Football must provide an unmistakable opportunity to teach a captive audience of young people about character. It’s a rare opening and we feel very strongly that it shouldn’t be wasted. Football must be used as a hook to teach kids that strength of character is an essential ethic for a successful life.”
Another parent, who asked not to be named, said he was “shocked close to half the team, preparing for the AFC Under 14 tournament, were on unacceptable behaviour”. “My son told me the FAS tried to hush hush the matter and told the players to keep quiet after half the team were given one overseas tournament ban. No wonder the FAS has a string of poor results at junior age-group levels,” he adds, shaking his head in disappointment.
“We must see football as a proven mechanism for teaching a set of values that are much more important than the game itself,” he says. “The FAS must take the lead and teach kids that personal character can propel them much further than their speed or agility on the field.”
NO SHAME CULTURE
A youth coach, familiar with the Singapore Under 14 team, described the banned players as “very skilful footballers”. He says: “At this age, they must be inculcated more off-the-field values on how to be a disciplined footballer and, hopefully, make football a longer-term career. So what if they’re skilful, but cannot get away from their sleazy actions? They must face the music.”
Former Singapore award-winning coach Jita Singh declined to comment on the incident as he’s not aware of it. But he cites the role-model example of Bundesliga (Germany) 26-times champion Bayern Munich, where “personal character and discipline are ranked far higher than football skills”.
He says: “I salute the Bayern way they handle the young players. They share how discipline and perseverance can help overcome adversity. They talk about longer-term loyalty and integrity because those qualities will help them become a constructive force in any organisation. They explain how respect and selflessness can improve relationships.”
Jita, who was ‘Coach of the Year 1981’ and now as Director of Football Excellence at five-time S-League champion Tampines Rovers, describes himself as a “hard-core disciplinarian and character-builder”.
He adds: “Character takes time to develop. It takes plenty of encouragement, too. And in our experience, an enduring commitment from a mentor is vital. For many kids, that mentor is a parent. But sometimes a parent is either not an option, or not enough.”
Using the analogy of football-loving parents, he adds: “We both credit much of our success to a handful of special people who invested in us. We were blessed with strong fathers and mothers who gave everything they had to set us on the right path and there were others who selflessly guided us along the way. Siblings, coaches and other father figures played an outsized role in determining the type of people we are today.”
Their sacrifice, just like coaches on the field-of-play, fuels the passion to pay it forward with the next generation. He says: “It compels us to relay the lessons we were taught at a young age about the importance of character. It drives us as we recruit others to do the same.
“The good news is that you don’t need a background in professional sports to make a positive difference in the life of a young person. They (coaches and parents) teach us life’s most important lessons. And they always must show, the Bayern Munich-way, that character is much more important than football.”
Jita said he supports the recent advice given by (the late) President S R Nathan after the S-League footbrawl incident in September 7 2010 between Young Lions and Beijing Guo’an Talent FC, in one of the most disgraceful incidents in S-League history, which resulted in two players hospitalised and several others injured.
“The President said that the errant young players, most of the below 23 years, should not be shamed,” Jita recalls: “It’s important for longer-term development. Education and not a shamed culture is the way forward.”
The government prohibits vaping in Singapore as the emerging tobacco products such as smokeless cigars/cigarillos/cigarettes, dissolvable tobacco/nicotines, vaporisers, e-cigarette liquids are harmful to health. Any person found with e-cigarettes (or any product mentioned above) are liable to a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a maximum jail term of six months. Subsequent convictions will double the initial penalties.
“Vapers”, a term used to describe enthusiasts of the nicotine-laced vapour used in e-cigarettes, have fuelled a thriving black market in the devices, especially among teenagers. Addiction experts say the e-cigarettes are harmful, can cause cancer and may well introduce smoking to the young and impressionable.
Doctors say schoolboys who vape – that is, use e-cigarettes – are more likely to become heavy smokers by the end, compared to their peers who don’t vape. “It’s such an emerging public health issue,” says a leading doctor. “These teens aren’t just experimenting, significant portions are progressing to more regular levels of smoking.”
He warned that vaping nicotine may sensitise young brains to the addictive effects of the drug, making the first time with a cigarette more pleasurable or familiar. Side effects like nausea and dizziness might make them less likely to continue football.
But even e-cigs that do not contain nicotine could be dangerous for teens, who may grow fond of the ritual of inhaling a substance, “making them more inclined to experiment with other tobacco products,” he adds.
DISBAND NATIONAL TEAM
For the record, FAS President Zainudin Nordin in January 2011 disbanded the national team after poor performances in the Asian Football Federation (AFF) Tournament. There were behind-the-scenes reports of ill-discipline by senior Lions players, which warranted this severest action, probably unprecedented in world football.
One of the worst off-the-field football violence involving young FAS players was in May 2001, where a number of players were involved in a pre-dawn gangland fight at the popular dining and pub district of Boat Quay. Sulaiman Hashim, a National Football Academy Under-18 striker, died after suffering 13 serious stab wounds. He was attacked by a group of youths armed with blunt objects including rods and sticks. Police classified the case as murder.
Sulaiman, who was hailed as the next ‘Fandi Ahmad’, has been a national football representative since he was 14, first in the Under-16 team, and later in the Under-18 squad. Tall and powerfully built for a teenage-striker, he even caught the eye of England Schools’ Under-18 coach Malcolm Hird. The FAS said in a statement after his death that “Sulaiman was a promising player whose death is a big loss to Singapore football”.
In summing up, let me say that the FAS must remain transparent, in youth development football, with the parents and players. Please stop the long string of cover-ups, which has grown to be a mountain of shame at the Jalan Besar Stadium headquarters.
Football must always be used as a proven global sporting mechanism for teaching a set of values that are much more important than the game itself.
Now under world-class Belgian technical director Michel Sablon, the complicities and conspiracies must end. A new whitewash must begin in grassroots football and the FAS must seriously take the lead and teach kids that personal character can propel them much further than their speed or agility on the field.
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who believes hard-core discipline and character-building are the key elements for the younger generation of footballers.