Not many people know this, but the tiny South-East Asian island of Singapore is home to one of the oldest youth tournaments in the world: the Lion City Cup. Founded 35 years ago by then-chairman of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) N Ganesan, it has been credited as the inspiration behind the FIFA World Youth Under-17 and Under-19 tournaments.
The 24th edition of the competition concluded last Sunday night, with the AFC Ajax Under-15s beating the host nation’s Under-16s 4-1 to emerge as overall champions. Canon Singapore, which came onboard as a title sponsor last year, brought in the U15 sides of FC Porto, Manchester City and Vasco da Gama, in addition to Ajax, to compete with Singapore’s very own National Football Academy (NFA) U15 and U16 teams.
This was on the back of a successful 2011 tournament, where CR Flamengo of Brazil were crowned victors ahead of Juventus, Everton, Newcastle and the NFA U15s and U16s amidst throngs of spectators who flocked to the Jalan Besar Stadium to cheer on the Cubs, as the young Singapore players are known as.
The tournament split the six teams into two groups, with the top two advancing to the semi-finals, while there were also playoffs for third/fourth and fifth/sixth placings.
This year, Ajax proved to be a class above all the other sides. Despite getting off to a poor start, losing against the NFA U16s 1-2, they grew from strength to strength as the tournament progressed, especially with a thrilling 4-2 win against early favorites City in the semi-final after they were two goals down at half-time.
There were some starlets who caught the eye at the tournament, least of all Ajax’s mercurial number ten, Abdelhak Nouri. The Dutch youth international was the major creative force in his side, with a playing style resembling Spanish maestro Andres Iniesta, and bagged the Most Valuable Player award.
Fellow team-mate Ezra Walian was clinical in front of goal, banging in seven goals to take home the Golden Boot. Players such as Vasco’s Luan Martins, the City duo of Marcus Wood and Adam Robinson, as well as Bruno Costa and Ruben Neves of Porto also impressed in a competition packed with youth internationals from all sides involved.
Meanwhile, home supporters were fully behind the Cubs, with the crew from hardcore supporters’ group Lions All The Way turning up at all the matches involving the NFA teams to cheer them on with unrelenting singing and chanting.
In particular, the U16s delighted by making it all the way to the final, where they gave their all and will have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of despite finishing as runners-up.
Adam Swandi, the twinkle-toed star of the U16s, has been singled out as one of the best youngsters to have been produced here in recent years, and there are calls for the FAS to send him overseas for training stints in order to develop his potential.
Having seen talent such as Jeffery Lightfoot and Hanafi Akbar come to light during the same tournament last year, the question is: how can the FAS ensure that the promise of such players do not go unfulfilled?
The problem of developing such talent to the maximum is one which has plagued the local football scene for ages, not least with the issue of National Service, whereby fit healthy males are required to serve in the army for two years, from eighteen years old onward, a period where athletes enjoy their peak physical development period.
It is also doubtful that a few overseas week-long training stints here and there for a few select players will be of much help overall to the development of these players.
While there are other factors and reasons at play, which are too lengthy to be mentioned in this overview here, it seems unlikely that the existing problems will not be resolved any time soon.
The last Singaporean footballer to play in Europe was local legend Fandi Ahmad, who is famous in this part of the world for scoring against Italian giants Inter Milan while donning the colors of Dutch club FC Groningen.
It remains to be seen when the next local footballer who can emulate Fandi’s achievements will come around.
Like Think Football on Facebook for more updates: https://www.facebook.com/thinkingfootball