Do read Part 1 if you haven’t already!
Launching The Woodlands Lions
A private landscaper right now, he still contributes to the footballing scene with his most recent initiative, Woodlands Lions.
Woodlands Lions was launched by Venga because he felt there was a need to establish a proper youth team. While the rest of the COE teams receive some level of funding from the FAS, Venga mentions that Woodlands Lions is fully funded by his own money, though the FAS has always supported clubs like his with equipment and stuff. Despite this, the Lions have been able to keep up with the rest of the pack, and that boils down to the professional training regime that the club has incorporated.
“I plant seeds into my little boys. I always tell them that it’s not easy but you need to work at it [becoming a world-class footballer]. What makes you think you’re going to be a top-notch footballer if you juggle [the ball] forty times only. [Getting used to the] weight of the ball and the hitting, it all comes with practice.”
Bringing his boys from Woodlands Lions overseas is an immediate goal for Venga, but at the same time, if Woodlands Wellington were to return and should he helm the Rams once again, he believes an opportunity lies for his current Woodlands Lions boys to develop locally. He has a grand vision to send these local boys overseas for important development. They would come back to finish up their National Service obligation, but the idea is to return overseas. He believes that, while the local clubs in the Singapore Premier League teams are able to provide a certain level of elite development, talented players should go away to more competitive environment in a mature ecosystem in order to further pit themselves against better players.
“The [SPL] as it stands now is the highest level here in Singapore, but we need to further move the needle so that our boys would be able to compete with better players especially in international competitions. Don’t get me wrong, I think the football administration is much better now as compared to maybe 5-7 years ago, but we need to continue pushing the boundaries. We also need local coaches to embrace more accountability and acknowledge that at the elite level, it is results that matter. I remember sacking Coach on the way back from Thailand. I told the Chairman that we needed to let our Coach go and he said, ‘okay let him go.’ [Consequently], I became manager/coach for the last few games of the season. A club needs a leader who isn’t afraid to do what is best for the club. I mean I have nothing personal against the coaches I sacked. It’s a case of them not delivering. If you don’t perform, you go.”
The Ever-Passionate Football Fan
“The S.League should be fully funded to the maximum with $2 million given to each team and they should not ask the chairmen to come up with the money. Singapore Pools is only funding part of it. You need to convince Singapore Pools to give $2 million to each team. If you have 10 teams then the clubs can find other resources. As a basic, you need $2 million to run a good team.”
Venga raises a really pertinent point. Being the only betting avenue in Singapore, Singapore Pools has the capacity to fund each club, barring Lion City Sailors $2 million. It ensures that clubs have a stable foundation for them to build on.
Of course, the cynical observer would argue that why should football deserve this funding?
As Venga asserts, football is an elite sport and it is our only professional sport in Singapore. Yet money itself is not going to change the league.
Instead, a multi-pronged approach is necessary.
One approach is to bring in better quality players from the European leagues, and Venga believes more clubs should eye European players from clubs that Singaporeans vividly support and follow.
“You bring in those English players who have played for or were in Manchester City’s or some to EPL club’s academy but did not make the cut. Bring these players in and if you can naturalize them, why not? John Wilkinson is one. I went to Leeds during the cold winter in 2001 on the advice of Simon Clark. He was an agent who told me to go and look at John. [Wilkinson] was playing for Exeter City at the time. So, I went to Leeds Athletic Centre and the pitch was frozen at the time. So, I told John to do whatever his best is and show me what he can do with the ball. Then John went out to the pitch in his sweater and I was there freezing in the cold. John was juggling, turning around and showing his touches on the ball, which were fantastic. I saw his record at Exeter City and I said, let’s go to Singapore. Agu [Casmir] is another one. He came for a trial with Woodlands Wellington and within five minutes of seeing him play, I told [then Woodlands Wellington manager] M. Karathu look at this boy. Karuthu told me to take him out of trial and sign him up and I did.”
“I fully support the Goal 2034 Project. Not because I believe we will qualify for the World Cup but because Project 2034 provides us with a target for us to reach and builds a foundation. However, I believe the schools must be aligned to what the national curriculum preaches, and should play a complementary role to the development of young players, in addition to what the clubs do.”
While the new plans for Goal 2034 seem promising, where a new national curriculum is introduced, it really needs to be augmented with elite training. Venga believes that the cream of the crop, the elite players, need to train with clubs and not schools. The issue facing many clubs, including Woodlands Lions, is CCA points. Playing for a club instead of the school team does not earn you CCA points. Yet, what if playing for these clubs gets recognized as an external CCA?
NFL Clubs need to have youth teams and the FAS should further subsidize youth development efforts by these clubs, on top of what the FAS is already giving as grants.
“I like to see more people playing at the ground level. I’d like to see the return of the Prime Minister’s Cup so that there can be more football at the inter constituency level. That and the President Cup brings the community together.”
When it comes to grassroots football, we currently only have the Islandwide League and the two NFL Divisions. Venga wants more. And quite sincerely, I feel the same.
Interestingly, Venga does agree that as things stand, a conditional promotion and relegation system should exist. If the NFL Division 1 champion does not have the expertise to remain in the NFL, then they should not be promoted. It is critical that they can prove that the club has the expertise and the financial management. Only then do they deserve to be in the SPL. Venga was quick to add this, though.
“Unless, of course, the Singapore Pools gives a lot of money to the Division 1 champion just like what happened to Fulham, who got promoted to the league, they were given 180 million dollars. If they do that, then that’s okay. That should be the way. If someone wins Division 1, they should be given the $2 million and establish themselves. These clubs also need to show the regulators that they are serious, and they will be accountable and take ownership with a proper plan in place.
“When I created the plan in 1995, I [showed the link] to grassroots football and the support from all the grassroots leaders. There are some clubs in the SPL that don’t have that grassroots connection.”
For Project 2034 to work, Venga firmly believes that we need to learn from other Asian nations who have made it to the World Cup.
“Why is Japan so good? 20 to 30 years ago, they brought in Brazilian coaches like Zico and they really developed. Here, they don’t want to do that. Do you think our local coaches good enough? I don’t think so. We should hire someone who has taken a country to a World Cup to be an advisor to the technical part of this project , independently from FAS and Active SG, so that he will tell where the problems lie. There are very small countries like Iceland that have made it to the World Cup. We need to bring in people like these and give them freedom of control. We can’t have them here and when they suggest changes, we turn to them and say this is the Singapore system and we need to follow that. This is my view and everyone in football has their own views – We need to bring someone who has taken a country to a World Cup.”
Besides improving the youth systems, Venga believes that one reason why Singapore football is not as freely played as before is that the common man cannot get to play.
“The common man does not get a stadium nowadays to play. He has to go and fork out a lot of money for pitches. So slowly, they will lose interest. Football is actually supposed to be a free sport in Singapore. People don’t need to play in academies to be footballers. I mean nowadays academies are an important part of that process but why did Brentford close down their academy? They spent a lot of money on it previously and the returns were very little. For a while, I also believed that Woodlands Lions should close up because every year, my players get pinched by the bigger clubs and I don’t get protected. It got to a time where I was thought why am I investing so much to produce players only for them to be taken away. The worst thing is that the parents believe that their boy, at 13 years old, is the king of the world – already a national team player. That’s how you spoil a player. But I have hope when I hear that with Project 2034, training compensation and player transfer mechanisms are being assessed, as well free-to-play facilities are being considered specifically for the younger players.”
A Misunderstood Figure
“Professor Ho Peng Kee is a fantastic man in my life Whatever that he has said to me is like a book that I must follow. Once he said, ‘people don’t understand you, Venga. They will always say things to hurt you. So, why do you want to get hurt every time? I’ve been through some hard times and he was always there to support me mentally.”
As I ended my interview with Venga, he started talking about his grandchildren and showed me pictures and videos of them. As he was talking, I think it’s important for us to remember that the Venga is also a family man. It is easy for us to glance over this aspect because of his harsh and direct character.
Does he say the most controversial things? Of course, he does. One doesn’t earn the moniker, the mouth of the North simply. However, I do believe that Venga is often misunderstood. His intentions behind his controversial remarks are truly for the benefit of Singapore football. You may disagree with what he says but he does make your head turn. Attention is what he brought to the local league and adds a certain vibrancy to the local football landscape. In this second part, I let Venga’s words come through more and hopefully, you understood the man slightly better from this brief article.
Featured Image Credits: Andrew Him
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