By Suresh Nair
JUST like Malaysia and Thailand, Singapore, after almost 16 years, will finally be led by a home-grown coach: V. Sundramoorthy.
Just like Datuk Ong Kim Swee (Malaysia) and Kiatisuk Senamuang (Thailand), the enormous pressure will be on Sundram to prove that having foreigners is not the long-term answer to change the fortunes of ASEAN football.
The last local to coach the Lions on a permanent basis was Vincent Subramaniam, who held the job from 1998 to 2001. He has since migrated to Bangalore, India, to seek regional coaching fortunes , doing footballing courses for FIFA (the world football-controlling body).
Hats off to Sundram this week. Perfect to a dream script, on his last assignment with Tampines Rovers on Tuesday, he got the magical send-off with a 2-1 extra-time win over Mohun Bagan.
And the Stags (Tampines’ nickname) qualified for the quarter-finals, for the first time since Home United and Singapore Armed Forces FC (now Warriors FC) to reach the final eight, in 2008.
An international striker of exceptional regional quality, raised from the Sembawang “kampong”, Sundram, also hailed as “The Dazzler”, is known for his tactical acumen and defensive nous. To his credit, he assisted German coach Bernd Stange, along with Fandi Ahmad, for national team matches since June last year.
He also coached the Lions for the AFC Asian Cup 2015 qualifying match against Jordan in 2013 after Raddy Avramovic stepped down. Going back, his first taste of coaching came in 1999 when he was appointed the first-ever player-coach for Jurong FC, a post he held till 2003. Indeed, his crowning achievement came when he led the LionsXII to the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL) title.
ONLY A ONE-YEAR-CONTRACT?
But what puzzles me is that this home-grown talent, who even played professionally for Switzerland club FC Basle, has authority and ambition, but he’s only offered a silly one-year contract as national coach. Why?
In simple schoolboy terms, he’s essentially a probationary intern in shiny red boots! Any layman will ask: How can you offer him a 12-month contract to rebuild the dilapidated squad left behind by Stange?
It’s absolutely a big slap on the face, which in my opinion, comes across as a begrudging, even patronising, vote of confidence before he starts.
Come on, FAS, on his humble report-book, Sundram is not only the most technically gifted footballer of his generation, he has shown his rousing coaching potentials at dugouts at Jurong FC, the National Football Academy, the Young Lions, LionsXII, Negri Sembilan and Tampines Rovers. Absolutely, he’s familiar with both domestic talent and regional opposition.
If “ang moh” coaches of a colonial era from Europe come, with disputable coaching merits, they’re instantly offered long-term contracts, just as in Malaysia and Thailand.
Just look at Bernd Stange, he was awarded a three-year contract, despite having no previous experience of South-East Asian football or even the philosophy of multi-cup-winning predecessor Raddy Avramovic.
Is this a shrewd unmeritocratic way of belittling the home-grown prodigy Sundram that he must prove himself first points to the inherent inferiority complex that continues to hinder the national game?
Sad, on reflection, Stange’s tenure was affected by a suppressed rejection of Singapore’s reality. I heard from coaches and players that he took a regulating view, forever stressing what footballers, administrators and even media writers and commentators needed to do to lift their game and improve their performance.
In the end, far too much energy was expended telling Singaporeans what they already knew. The hard truth was that the Lions were light years behind the rest of the ASEAN neighbours.
And yet, with the colonial hangover that we still endure, for better or for worse, Stange’s critical stance was condoned. He’s an “ang moh”, so he must be an expert in the A-B-Cs of football, he must be tactically right with his brand of “pressure football”.
Amazingly, he was allowed to limp on for three years, despite a glaring lack of progress on the pitch. And, as I understand, even with meagre player-confidence in the backroom.
Ironically, Stange was allowed to see out his contract, whereas Sundram reportedly gets offered 12 months, despite his acute understanding of the challenges faced.
Come on, is there racial or colour or football prejudice, perhaps just like in Malaysia and Thailand? Is there a paranoid thinking along the corridors of FAS at Jalan Besar Stadium headquarters that a Sembawang-raised talented lad cannot lead his country and be given the same terms as an “ang moh”?
Sundram, to his credit, has worked within so many unique Made-in-Singapore constraints for more than a decade. From localised dietary requirements, cultural and religious sensitivities, the pathetic state of youth academies and playing surfaces, the lack of Chinese or Indian players, the shortage of qualified coaches, who can lead the grassroots, the different dialects spoken on a training field, the sport versus study academic dilemma, the neglected state of the 21-year-old S-League and even then suppositive battlefields of National Service.
He knows these self-inflicted long-drawn Singaporean drawbacks, enough to convince the younger generation players that, if they’re keen to pursue a professional career, there’s a lot of bucking up to do, in order to raise Singapore’s regional footballing profile.
FAS, for starters, must come out from their fossil-like frogs-in-the-well attitude. Definitely without a bully mentality. Sadly, the psychological caveat remains. And they look at Sundram as a mere local. He must be somehow inferior or sub-standard and can be pushed around, like a carom on a concealed board.
Hey, Sundram is Singaporean, just like Datuk Ong Kim Swee is Malaysian and Kiatisuk Senamuang, a thrilling Thailand legend. They deserve as much, if not more, of the financial privileges that “ang moh” coaches get. And, more importantly, they must be given reasonable time to develop a localised discernible style, built on youth and quick interplay.
Look at the Singapore track record: Only one out of three foreign coaches in the last 16 years has achieved any kind of silverware success and yet the stubborn stereotype endures. Mind you, a limited shelf life comes with the inflexible job description.
Whatever the terms of contract, be it Jose Mourinho or Josep “Pep” Guardiola or Claudio Ranieri, most big managers are always one dreadful run of results or one wretched tournament away from an early exit.
In my opinion, Sundram’s 365-day deal smacks of caution, carelessness, if not recklessness and even prejudice, in football management, that encourages critics to let fly that there’s unshakeable displeasure when it comes to the hiring of “bola” talent in Singapore.
When will the FAS ever wake up from its colonial European-nightmare hangover, starting from the 1970s era of Michael Walker, Bukhard Ziese, Trevor Hartley, Milous Kvacek, Ken Worden, Douglas Moore, Barry Whitbread, Jan Poulsen, Raddy Avramovic and Bern Stange? (Did I miss any other antiquated “ang moh” names?)
Ironically, for the Asean home-grown player-to-coach prodigies, from Sundram, Datuk Ong Kim Swee and Kiatisuk Senamuang, their acid tests will be November’s Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship, which Singapore have won four times.
Matter of fact, only one coach will win Asean’s creaky version of the World Cup and that alone should not sway the mind of the respective selectors. Especially, not for a humble home-grown talent given a 365-day contract, to instantly prove that like a mind-blowing magician with a mythical wand, he can instantly change footballing fortunes after years and years of neglect by foreigners.
Please, let’s stop the local brain-drain. Let’s show longer-term confidence and pay value-added salaries to Sundram, Fandi Ahmad, Nazri Nasir and Kadir Yahaya, if only to show the next generation of coaches that there’s still a future in pro football coaching.
For Sundram, he uttered poignantly in a recent interview: “I’m a Singaporean. To one day lead my country at international level will be a proud moment for me… yes, I’ll be very proud.”
The hard truth: Sorry Sundram. The clock is ticking. You better be quick about it. You only got 365 days!
- Suresh Nair is probably one of the rare journalists with an AFC-coaching licence and an England-trained referee instructor