Asian Football

Revisiting The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme

I grew up in an era when the Singapore National Team featured several naturalized players. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme was introduced in 1993 by the Table Tennis Association, and the Football Association of Singapore adopted it in 2000. Itimi Dickson, Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Qiu Li, Mirko Grabovac, Egmar Gonçalves, and Mustafić Fahrudin are some foreign-born players that gained citizenship through the scheme and went on to represent the Lions during the 2000s and early 2010s.

This period was also coincidentally when the Singapore National Team did exceptionally well, winning 3 AFF Suzuki Cups between 2004 and 2012. Many would argue that the foreign players did improve the overall calibre of the national team during this period, especially since Singapore had only won one international tournament – the Tiger Cup in 1998.

Yet, it wasn’t just the foreign-born players that were exceptional. Singapore boasted many exceptional local-born players during this period as well. Noh Alam Shah, Indra Sahdan, Aide Iskandar, S. Subramani, Noh Rahman, Sharil Ishak, Khairul Amri, and Baihakki Khaizan made important contributions during this period as well. In that sense, naturalized players complimented the existing crop of local footballers at the time, instead of simply carrying the entire team to glory.

However, the FAS stopped utilizing the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme a long time ago, and players like Aleksandar Đurić had to apply for citizenship in their private capacity. In recent years, there have been calls for the scheme to be reintroduced for certain players, but nothing has materialized. It raises an interesting question nonetheless – should it be reintroduced? Why? Or, why not?

In 2020, the FAS did respond to queries over the Foreign Talent Scheme. A spokesperson mentioned that:

“The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) believes that the development of a sustainable pipeline of quality local players is vital towards producing a successful National Team as well as the long term growth of Singapore football. This is evident in our investments in the ramped up efforts to scout for young talent, provide more playing opportunities as well as enhance the pathways and structure for the development of local youth players, as we assess and prepare those who are capable to represent Singapore in senior levels.

“We remain open to the possibility of integrating naturalised players into the National Teams to achieve the mid-to-long term goals of the FAS. Apart from the mandatory requirement for such players to have lived here continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18, they should also demonstrate their capability and capacity to complement our local players, raise the level of the competitive football environment and show they are fully committed to be citizens of Singapore, its culture and way of life.”

In theory, the FAS response suggests that the organization is open to the idea of naturalizing exceptional players. Yet, why have they failed to do so? The past decade has seen 2 notable and deserving players miss out on naturalization. Sirina Camara and Jordan Webb had fulfilled the mandatory 5-year residency rule implemented by FIFA, but Singaporean citizenship was not offered to either player. Webb spent 10 years in Singapore and in 2017, managed to get his Permanent Residency here. Unfortunately, Webb is no longer based in Singapore as he recently returned to Canada after the 2020 season concluded. On the other hand, Camara left for France in 2018 after 7 years here. Turning down better offers overseas, both players were keen on representing Singapore and made Singapore their home.

Like Webb, Song Ui-yong has received his Permanent Residency, and I sincerely hope that he gains his Singapore citizenship soon. The South Korean came to Home United in 2012 and has remained at the club even after they became privatized in 2020.

So why is it taking so long? Or why did past earmarked players not received citizenship? The short answer is – we don’t know. That being said, here are two possible reasons why.

Putting Singaporean Players First?

Naturalized players who came through the scheme undoubtedly improved the calibre of the team at least for a while. However, their inclusion meant limited spaces for local footballers who were trying hard to make their national team debut or add to their senior caps.

The inclusion of many naturalized players poses a few challenges. For one, it limits the opportunities for Singaporean players who need national team caps to move to other Southeast Asian clubs. Of course, it also means that Singaporean players need to work harder to break into the national team, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for most naturalized players and the same group of local players to be chosen by the national team manager during the 2000s and early 2010s. This means that the chance to play overseas, which is tied to national caps, was off the cards for the bulk of local footballers.

Playing overseas undoubtedly raises the standard of a player and thus, having more Singaporeans have stints abroad would only help improve the quality of the national pool.

National Service?

While younger naturalized footballers in the past did not have to serve national service, I’m not too sure if the government would allow such an exception for future naturalized players that are at an age still eligible for NS, especially after the Ben Davies National Service defaulting saga in 2019.

One can safely assume that simply naturalizing players, who are aged between 17 and 25, is out of the equation. As such, giving Singapore citizenship to talented foreign players would surely stir controversy after the fuss kicked up by the government following Ben Davies’ decision to default on NS.

Naturalizing players based on Heritage – Whatever happened to Perry Ng and Luke O’Nien?

This is an interesting one. Other countries in the region have spent a fair bit of their resources to scout for players in Europe that have heritage or ancestry. Malaysia has several players like La’Vere Corbin-Ong, Matthew Davies, and Darren Lok. Likewise, the Philippines have a host of players who were born overseas. The most famous one is arguably Neil Etheridge, currently on loan at Birmingham City from Cardiff City. Cambodia has French-born players like Thierry Bin and Boris Kok. Indonesia has many Dutch-born players with Indonesian heritage with Stefano Lilipaly being one such individual.

What about Singapore then? I think it is worth investing some time to scout for more players that have Singaporean heritage with a view to naturalize them. There were talks to naturalize Luke O’Nien, who is at Sunderland AFC, and Perry Ng, who recently moved to Cardiff City, but nothing materialized. Having O’Nien and Ng in the Singapore national football team would only improve the quality of the team and also offer Singaporean internationals the chance to play alongside regulars in the English Football League.

Singapore did dabble with this idea in the past with Danish footballer Benjamin Kristoffersen Lee, whose father was Singaporean, but later gave it up for Danish nationality. Lee played in the lower divisions in Denmark before playing with the Young Lions in the 2012 season. He was not naturalized, but it demonstrated that the FAS has encountered players with Singaporean heritage previously. Yet it still begs the question as to why it is not something that the FAS has given more serious consideration.

Final Thoughts for Now

I think the core focus of the FAS should be improving youth development internally. Producing world-class footballers from within should be the ultimate goal. Yet, at the same time, I think naturalization would complement efforts to improve the overall quality of the national team. The FAS should seriously consider scouting for players with Singaporean heritage and reintroducing the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme where they expedite the citizenship process of worthy candidates who have made Singapore their home. Of course, the question of granting citizenship is a touchy subject. Yet, there are obvious merits regarding the naturalization of some really talented players. The issue is how the FAS ensures that internal youth development doesn’t become secondary to blooding in more naturalized players. If that happens, Singapore will never move forward as a footballing nation.

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