SEA Games flop is just one sign that Singapore football is struggling
On the same night that Olympic swimming champion Joseph Schooling won his third Southeast Asian (SEA) Games gold medal, his country's football team exited the regional competition with barely a whimper.
Singapore scraped to a consolation 1-0 victory over Brunei on Wednesday night, courtesy of an own goal from centre-back Khalid Wassadisalleh Mahmud after earlier defeats to Myanmar and host nation Malaysia to go along with a 2-0 win against Laos.
But Singapore's failed quest for an elusive SEA Games football gold medal doesn't tell the full story of the bleak picture that's emerged for the sport in the island nation.
In case there were any doubts, here are five clear signs that Singapore football is crisis:
1. Suzuki Cup failures
There used to be a time when Singapore could call themselves the kingpins of Southeast Asia -- but not now. Just five years ago, they were standing on the pinnacle after claiming a record fourth AFF Suzuki Cup title. But they have since been superseded by Thailand, who moved to five AFF crowns after winning the last two editions.
A more worrying sign is that they Lions seem to crumble whenever the pressure comes. In 2014, they needed just a draw in their final group game against Malaysia to progress into the last four, but fell to a shock 3-1 defeat on their home turf.
It was a similar case two years later, losing 2-1 to Indonesia, despite taking a first-half lead in a game which they just needed to draw. Singapore were also ultra-defensive throughout the tournament, and simply gave too much respect to Philippines and Thailand in the first two games.
A shift in mindset is needed as they look to avoid a third successive group stage exit in 2018, and overcome a poor start to their qualifying campaign to earn a place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates.
2. Poor results in age-group tournaments
It is no better for Singapore when you look at how the age-group teams have performed in recent years.
In the 2015 SEA Games on home soil, the U23s failed to make it beyond the group stage, losing 1-0 to Indonesia in a game in which they required just a point to progress. Sound familiar?
In this month's 2017 edition in Kuala Lumpur, the U22s did not fare any better to suffer a second straight exit before the knockout stages, despite being in the easier group.
And here's a more alarming statistic: between 2014 and 2016, Singapore's age-group sides from U14 to U23) managed a paltry 10 wins in 62 attempts. While development is more important than results at this level, the trend does point to a decline in the player pipeline, with possible adverse effects in the long run.
The onus is on Michel Sablon, technical director of FAS Michel Sablon, to re-assess the viability of National Football Academy (NFA) development system, and Garena Young Lions, having been in charge since April 2015. New FAS President Lim Kia Tong also needs to weigh in on this.
3. Albirex dominating domestic football
You have to go back to 2014 for the last time a Singapore side collected a piece of domestic silverware.
Balestier Khalsa upset the odds to beat Home United 3-1 in a shock Singapore Cup triumph. In the same year, Warriors FC saw off Brunei DPMM on the final day to win a record ninth S.League title.
Since then, it has been all doom and gloom for Singaporean outfits. The 2015 league title was won by Steve Kean's DPMM, while six out of the last seven trophies on offer have been swept by Albirex.
More remarkable is the fact that Albirex have remained so successful despite refreshing their squad every close season. It points to sound management off the pitch, and a good scouting system to identify the players suitable for their system. And that's not to mention their shrewd marketing and outreach activities too.
Their success has led to fans calling for them to be kicked out of the S.League and questioning their contribution to Singapore football. It might be better to take a more positive outlook, with local clubs embracing the gauntlet thrown down by a foreign club to improve in all aspects so they can compete again.
4. Country's best not going beyond comfort zone
It is no secret that for a national team to get better their best talent should be aspiring to play in better leagues, even if only in Southeast Asia.
The core of Singapore's national squad is either stuck in the S.League or the Malaysian second tier. First-choice goalkeeper Hassan Sunny and vice-captain Hariss Harun have returned from abroad to play with Home United.
Safuwan Baharudin, along with Yasir Hanapi, is with struggling Malaysian second division outfit, PDRM FA, despite impressing during a loan spell with A-League club Melbourne City two years ago.
Veterans Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan now turn out for Warriors FC after leaving Johor Darul Ta'zim II, while wide man Hafiz Sujad returned to Tampines Rovers after BBCU pulled out of the Thai second division just a few games into the season.
Sahil Suhaimi is the only exception, plying his trade in the top-flight, across the Causeway for Sarawak FA.
Some of them should be playing at a higher level to expose themselves and maximise their potential. Safuwan and Hariss, arguably the country's top two players now, are surely good enough to be playing in Thailand, or even Japan.
5. Where's the next generation?
Local football journalists or fans may struggle to come up with a list of up-and-coming players. But, sadly, that is the reality, given the dearth of young Singaporean talent coming through.
Hassan Sunny and Izwan Mahbud are pretty much proven, while Zaiful Nizam is a capable No. 3. But who's the next to step up between the sticks, once this trio is gone?
Khairul Amri and Fazrul Nawaz are competent forwards, but cannot possibly go on forever, while we are still waiting for Khairul Nizam to live up to the potential that saw him billed as the next Fandi Ahmad. Where's the next promising No. 9 who can lead the Singapore forward line for the next decade?
Hanafi Akbar and Adam Swandi are looking to realise their early promise, while there is always the Fandi brothers, Irfan and Ikhsan. Putting them aside, where's the next big thing to get the fans off the edge of their seats?
It all boils down to youth development. Many have showed promise, but then faded into oblivion. All is not lost, but it is down to FAS to put in a proper structure to nurture promising players to ensure they maximise their potential.
Otherwise, we are likely to see more group stage exits at both Suzuki Cup and SEA Games level for years to come.
Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT