Football: FAS to quicken process of adding foreign-born players to Lions squad after AFF C’ship debacle

SINGAPORE – The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will speed up the process of getting foreign-born talent to play for the Lions, while also continuing to develop the local pipeline, it said on Friday.

The call for Singapore football to revisit the Foreign Talent Scheme (FTS) has grown louder since the Lions were knocked out of the Asean Football Federation Championship after a 4-1 trouncing by Malaysia on Tuesday.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, an FAS spokesman said while the development of quality local players is vital towards producing a successful national team, it is “increasingly evident that we need to concurrently explore the option of expediting the process of integrating naturalised players via the existing Foreign Talent Scheme”.

He added: “By reacting quickly to identify such suitable players who can contribute positively to Singapore football, it is a key step towards further enhancing our national teams to achieve the mid-to-long term goals of the FAS.”

However, it admitted that some circumstances of players who may be eligible for naturalisation may be beyond the purview of the FAS.

All of Malaysia’s goals on Tuesday were scored by foreign-born players. Stuart Wilkin, who netted a brace and Darren Lok, were both born in England and qualified for Malaysian citizenship through their parents. Fellow goal-scorer Argentina-born Sergio Aguero became a citizen in 2022 after fulfilling Fifa’s five-year residency rule to play for an adopted country at senior level.

Malaysia, who face Thailand in the semi-final, first leg on Saturday, have eight foreign-born players in their 23-man squad, with 11 more who withdrew or were not called up. In a trend that has gained popularity in recent years, other teams such as fellow semi-finalists Indonesia (three foreign-born players in this tournament) and the eliminated Philippines (13) have also boosted their ranks with overseas-born talent.

Singapore, had one – South Korea-born midfielder Song Ui-young who was granted citizenship in 2021 after meeting Fifa’s five-year residency requirement.

Previous success with foreign talent

The inclusion of naturalised players had helped the Lions previously. Players like Itimi Dickson, Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Shi Jiayi and Mustafic Fahrudin became citizens through the FTS and played key roles alongside local players in Singapore’s achievements such as the AFF Championship triumphs in 2004, 2007, and 2012. The last player who was granted Singapore citizenship through this scheme was Qiu Li in 2010.

In response to ST’s queries, Sport Singapore also said that while developing local players remains the key under the Unleash the Roar! project, national sports agencies (NSAs) can also nominate talented non-citizens who wish to represent Singapore under the FTS.

“However, the criteria go beyond assessing the athletes’ sporting abilities, but also considers the athletes’ long-term commitment to Singapore and not only to the sport,” it added.

Ex-national defender R. Sasikumar and former Hougang United coach Clement Teo believe that having foreign-born players is something that needs to be considered.

Sasikumar said: “With the way the football world is going, we would be very naive and close minded to say it should be all Singaporean-born boys who should play for the national team.

“We need quality players in the national squad and if there is a way to make that happen, we should pursue it. The reality is that we need foreign-born players. The teams in the semi-finals like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have done it, so what is stopping us?”

But Sasikumar warned that there must still be a robust youth development system to ensure local players are the core of the national team.

Teo agreed, saying: “We need to be open to any reasonable options. We were the pioneers of foreign-born talent in this region, so why not?”

“The good thing is there is a national project going on now, and Unleash the Roar is at an early stage and it is working on youth development now with more younger players coming through. As with most things, once a good foundation is built, the future will be more secure.”

The next foreign-born player who could turn out for Singapore could be Tampines Rovers’ 26-year-old Japanese midfielder Kyoga Nakamura, who had expressed his desire to play for the Lions, but will fulfil Fifa’s five-year residency rule only in 2024.

A route for players with Singaporean heritage?

There are also a host of players who qualify to play for the Lions via their Singaporean heritage. Sunderland right-back Luke O’Nien, 28, and Cardiff City centre-back Perry Ng, 26, had both expressed interest in turning out for the Lions in previous interviews.

According to global football governing body Fifa, players must have “a genuine link” with national teams they intend to play for. The basic criteria are: Place of birth, naturalisation by residence, or place of one grandparent’s birth.

Both England-born players, O’Nien and Ng, have a grandparent who was born in Singapore.

While Fifa rules deem these players as eligible to play for the Lions, qualifying for a Singaporean passport by descent is applicable only to individuals with at least one parent who is born in Singapore or is a citizen by registration, according to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). This means that in order for O’Nien or Ng to represent the Lions, they will need to give up their current passport, follow the FTS path and gain Singapore citizenship by meeting the ICA’s residency requirements.

In a previous interview with The New Paper, O’Nien had said that while he is willing to take up Singapore citizenship, doing so would mean that he would need a work permit to play in England, which would make things complicated. However, there is a workaround with the UK ancestry visa which is open to all Commonwealth nationals who can demonstrate lineage from a British-born grandparent.

Former Thailand and Laos coach Steve Darby, who led Home United to the S-League and Singapore Cup double in 2003, said he favours heritage players over naturalising foreigners.

The 67-year-old Englishman said: “I am totally in favour of players with a heritage playing for a country. They can be just as patriotic, such as Brendan Gan for Malaysia…

“But I am against the short-term fix of naturalised foreign players playing for the country because it can attract or breed mercenaries who don’t care about the country. I know of agents who are encouraging this just to boost the CVs of their players. There are always exceptions such as Daniel Bennett and Aleksandar Duric who both were genuinely committed to the country.”

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