Asian Football

The Brain Gain: Evaluating Singapore’s Reverse Football Brain Drain – Short Term Benefits & Next Steps?

The Singapore National Team has always had several players plying their trade overseas. Truth be told, we need it. While the Singapore Premier League and its former iteration as the S.League has always produced a decent level of football, our best footballers should be forging moves abroad. Playing in an overseas league is challenges these players both physically, technically, and mentally.

However, our league suffers a football brain drain of sorts when our best players leave the league. For those unfamiliar with the term, and to keep things as simple as possible, a brain drain is when there is a substantial emigration of individuals or human capital flight. A reverse brain drain occurs when these individuals who left the country return back and contribute to the economy.

In many ways, we see a reverse brain drain of sorts this season in the SPL with the return of many national team stalwarts. During the midseason, returning from their overseas ventures are Hariss Harun, Iqbal Hussain, Izwan Mahbud and Shakir Hamzah.

These players join Faris Ramli and Khairul Amri, who return to Singapore after spells with Malaysia Super League sides Terangannu FC and FELDA United respectively.

This is mere speculation, but Zulfahmi Arifin may also return to the SPL. I was under the assumption that the defensive midfielder would return to Hougang United since I believed he was on loan to Samut Prakan City. Yet, there hasn’t been any news of his return as things stand. If he does return, that’s one more national stalwart back to our shores.

Cynics might be quick to point to the poor national team showings in the recent World Cup Qualifiers played in Saudi Arabia. They probably doubt the quality that these players can bring to the SPL and might argue that they rob starting places of players who have been working hard weekly to fight for their places in the starting XI.

Even though it may take some time for players like Izwan and Shakir to settle in, I think (and do hope sincerely) that these players can help have a positive impact on their respective teams. Let’s be real here. We are talking about players who have shown their quality both at the club level and on the international stage before.

Besides sharing valuable experiences and lessons from their overseas stints, these stalwarts force their teammates to train harder to fight for a place in the first eleven. Theoretically, this should be beneficial for clubs. Hariss’s arrival would probably keep both Shahdan Sulaiman as well as Amirul Adli and Tajeli Salamat on their toes. Similarly, Izwan’s arrival could help Mukundan Maran. The young shot-stopper would have a perfect role model to emulate and understand the level he must be at to break into the first team.

However, in reality, coaches may be biased to start these national team stars regardless of their performances in training. In addition, the under-23 rule further compounds matters for these senior players that get overlooked because of these new arrivals as well.

Should We Develop From Within?

That being said, can Singapore football progress forward with an internal development model like Vietnam? What I mean is if players like Hariss and Izwan remain in Singapore (as opposed to leaving for greener pastures abroad) in the years to come, would the quality of the SPL be at the level required for the national team to develop from within?

The short answer is no. Yes, having better quality local players in the league will make the league stronger. However, for Singaporean players to really take their game to the next level, they need to be playing in overseas leagues.

As things stand, we have four prominent players who are based in foreign clubs at the moment. M Anumanthan joined Kedah this season. Safuwan Baharudin has been playing in Malaysia since 2012 (barring his short stint with Melbourne City in 2015). Irfan Fandi recently clinched the Thai League 1 title with BG Pathum United, while Ikhsan Fandi is lighting it up in Norway with Jerv. However, newer faces need to make this leap to foreign lands.

Younger Singaporeans in particular need to forge moves abroad. Being a foreign player in a league overseas has its own set of challenges. There is constant pressure to be better than your local teammates and continuously put in fine displays. Even though this lifestyle isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is exactly what pushes Singaporean players to reach their true potential.

Here’s the thing, though. There is a lot of talk about Singaporean footballers needing to go to Europe. Yes, I do concede that our brightest prospects should play in Europe to hone their skills further. Although, are all players going to make it in Europe? Of course not. Furthermore, what about current senior players? Do they have a chance?

Sending younger players to Korean, Japanese and Australian lower tier (tier 3/4) teams is realistic. However, more has to be done and simply sending them for training stints will not cut it.

If this level is too high for our current crop of youngsters to secure any permanent moves. Then, we need to keep things in perspective and send them elsewhere. Places like New Zealand may not be the most glamourous but several players have previously used the ISPS Handa Men’s Premiership as a launchpad for careers in Europe. With the inception of the New Zealand National League, young Singaporean players should look to it as a possible avenue.

Most Singaporean players also have a narrow mindset when it comes to opportunities in Southeast Asia and often only look at Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. It is time to think out of the box.

Quite honestly, why are the bulk of younger Singaporean players adverse to the idea of plying their trade in Laos or Cambodia?

Well, the money isn’t the best in these countries. Yet, the cost of living is also remarkably low and if a young Singaporean player (21 to 24-year-olds after NS) is going to earn under $2,000 SGD in Singapore, a temporary move to Laos or Cambodia makes sense.

Moreover, playing a season or two on loan at a similar or somewhat lower level than the SPL as a foreign player gives these players the valuable experience of playing overseas.

If anything, it might open doors to bigger leagues. For instance, doing well in Laos could very well earn these players a move to Thai League 2 and sometimes Thai League 1. Granted, Thai teams are possibly inclined to recruit Laotians for their ASEAN quota spot because Laotian players are relatively better placed to acclimatize into Thailand.

However, before I digress further into the cultural similarities and historical tensions between both states, the point I’d like to reiterate is that Thai clubs evidently have an eye on the Lao Premier League. There are many unorthodox avenues in which players can make a breakthrough to a better league. Players need to stop only focusing on making direct moves to the A-League, K-League, J-League or even Europe. There are unorthodox ways available and it is up to players to pursue these pathways.

In a few days, we see the return of the SPL. Obviously, we may not see every returning stalwart in action but time will tell if their return does indeed provide a boost to the quality of the local league.

I hope so, fingers crossed.

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In this week’s podcast episodes, we discuss several things yet again! In the first part, we look at the Euros and discuss aspects of the four semi-finalists. We look at how the Denmark national team has surprised everyone and have become everyone’s second favourite team. Will Gareth Southgate and England bottle it? Would fatigue affect…

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