Asian Football

On the Under-23 Rule: Let’s Keep It At One, But We Need The Prime League To Return

Back in January, I wrote an article about why it’s time for the Football Association of Singapore to consider re-evaluating the U-23 rule. Perhaps they read my article, because they’re supposedly revising the rule. If the alleged changes come to effect, then only one under-23-year-old player needs to start each game instead of the three right now. The revision would mirror the K-League model, where each team is required to field one U-22 player.

Yet, it would be foolish to think that revising this alone would yield miraculous strides in development. I think it’s important to understand why the under-23 rule was implemented to begin with. In principle, it was meant to help more younger footballers gain valuable senior first-team minutes, which would help refine their skills. More importantly, and less talked about, is the fact that the U-23 rules, in many ways, helped fill some void left by the decision to scrap the Prime League (the u-23/reserves League).

The lack of a Prime League or reserve competition is a major problem that the FAS needs to address and I bet they are addressing it. Why? It provides structured development. Not every Singaporean youth player is like Kishson Philip, Fathullah Rahmat, or Ilhan Noor. Most Singaporean players below 23 years old do not have what it takes right now to make the step up to the first team. I can’t stress how important it is for the FAS and for clubs to realize that they need to accommodate late bloomers to have the strongest possible national team pool.

Of course, the question then is why did the FAS scrap the Prime League? Well, two reasons come to mind.

Firstly, the Prime League wasn’t believed to be good enough for footballers to develop into first-team regulars. The rebranding of the S.League into the Singapore Premier League saw the introduction of the under-23 rule and the over-30 rule to emphasize youth development. However, it inadvertently (or possibly advertently) resulted in a culling of many Singaporean footballers. The FAS needs to carefully navigate in a narrow football ecosystem. Excluding the Young Lions and Albirex Niigata (S), the U-23 rule has limited effects since only 6 local sides exist. We constantly see many U-23 players get substituted off at halftime for senior players. Is this beneficial for young players? Unmistakably, it is.

Yet, it might be more prudent for playing in a U-23 league to help coaches identify players that are ready for the next level and assess the potential of those that are not at that level.

Secondly, and more importantly, running the Prime League is a costly engagement. If anything, it is rather costly for the FAS because it would have to provide subsidies to most clubs.

How much would running a Prime League team potentially cost? Assuming that in a Prime League squad of 25 players, each player is earning an average of $400 per month and that the team has three coaches with an average salary of $3,500 per month, the wages alone would be amount to $246,000. Of course, most clubs probably operated under this budget and may not have had three coaches for their Prime League squad. Yet, the point remains. Running a Prime League squad is going to incur substantial costs.

What can be done to circumvent these issues?

Well, a straightforward answer would be for the FAS to increase their funding to clubs that need it. However, whether the FAS can and will increase its funding to accommodate the return of the Prime League is still uncertain. That doesn’t mean that clubs should forgo investing in a Prime League/reserve squad. How can they generate revenue to sustain a Prime League team?

Well, it is high time for clubs to get creative in transforming themselves into financially viable machines. Most clubs are probably awaiting the promise of privatization. Yet, instead of waiting for a wealthy investor or group of investors, they can engage in several means to generate some revenue to fund a Prime League Team. Engaging in a GoFundMe or similar crowdsourcing campaign is common for lower league teams in Europe. It could be a worthwhile initiative for clubs to engage in so long as there is transparency about how the funds will be utilized. There are other ways that I also have mentioned in another previous article.

I’ve mentioned this before and I will mention it again. The Prime League could benefit from competing with the National Football League Division 1 and 2 clubs. Even though it may be difficult to effectively integrate the Prime League teams into the NFL, the FAS should at least allow Prime League teams to compete in the Singapore FA Cup. A similar arrangement has been carried out before in the past and it does mirror Premier League 2 teams competing in the EFL Trophy in England.

Should the Prime League not return, clubs need to be proactive in their pursuit of developing young players. A viable alternative could be the formation of working partnerships with NFL Div 1 and Div 2 teams. Loaning players to clubs or adopting clubs as ‘B’ teams would definitely be an interesting development. Particularly, SPL teams can use these linkages to form stronger links with the grassroots. Perhaps this is my naivety speaking, but such an arrangement has potential for these partnered NFL teams to possibly play their fixtures at their partnered SPL team stadiums. And before you begin to lament this point, like other advocates, I believe that we need a promotion and relegation system for our local league.

Let’s be realistic, however. We can only have a promotion and relegation system once we have more teams in the SPL and more financially sustainable teams in the NFL. This takes time and requires clubs to have concrete executable plans that help them to grow. If the Prime League does not get reinstated, having working partnerships help SPL teams give their youth players valuable first-team minutes.

Of course, the problem with my suggestions is that much of it depends on the pandemic. As things stand, due to COVID-19 measures, only the professional SPL can operate, and the ability to allow other leagues to operate is outside of the FAS’s control. Nevertheless, the decision to reduce the number of U-23 players starting each SPL match from three to one is indeed a welcome one. Players above the age of 23 now have more opportunities at each club and that’s huge.

Still, the FAS needs to ensure that it finds other means to develop young footballers. With COVID-19 looking to stay, it’ll be interesting to see what plans they enact before the pandemic becomes endemic.

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