Fulham teenager Ben Davis cleared to play for Singapore U18 team
In a depressing year for Singapore football, the eligibility of Fulham rookie Ben Davis gives their youngsters a glimmer of hope as they try to book a place at next year's Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-19 Championship in Indonesia.
The 23-man squad left for the qualifying tournament in Mongolia on Wednesday night. They play their first match against Thailand on Saturday in a group that also includes Japan, and the host nation.
Davis, 17, is an attacking midfielder or striker who signed a two-year scholarship with Fulham in July, and aspires to be like Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho. He was born in Thailand -- his mother is Thai and his father is British -- and obtained his Singapore citizenship in 2009.
While he's previously represented the nation in AFF tournaments at age-group levels, the approval to play for the first time in AFC competitions was granted only this week.
"[Ben] came last week, but he just qualified from [Monday]," Singapore U18 head coach Christophe Chaintreuil told ESPN FC.
"It's a good thing [because] we make hard work to have this boy with us. I think the team manager Rajan, and all the guys in the office, started working on this seven months ago."
On Tuesday night, Davis stood out in a friendly against Temasek Polytechnic, before being substituted midway through the second half. He scored two goals and provided an assist, all before half-time, in a 4-0 victory at Jalan Besar Stadium.
Chaintreuil hopes that Davis will help the young Singaporeans give a good account of themselves after a bleak series of results by age-group teams over the past year or so.
In 19 matches, the U15, U18 and U22 teams have won just five times, with 14 defeats. They've managed only19 goals, while conceding 58.
At the same time, the Singapore national team -- four-time Southeast Asian champions -- have failed to win a match in 2017, while Japan's Albirex Niigata (S) have dominated the S.League at the expense of local clubs like Home United and Tampines Rovers.
One outstanding player can only do so much, but Davis is happy to try to lift Singapore's youth fortunes. For the U19 qualifiers, they will be missing talented striker Ikhsan Fandi, son of national legend Fandi Ahmad, who stood out in August's Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
"It feels good to get exposure at international level. And also to play for the country, try to help them qualify," Davis told ESPN FC.
"My performance was alright [in the warm-up match]. Should've scored a hat trick but I'm happy with two goals and an assist."
Davis' second goal gave a glimpse into his potential, as he beat a couple of defenders before shooting with power and accuracy from outside the box.
Davis is one of 10 new Fulham scholars for the 2017-18 season, and the first from Singapore. Although he's spent only three months with the English second-tier outfit, he feels that he has already improved. Fulham's U18 side play against Premier League opposition, including Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
"I think I've made a massive improvement from when I came back. Started to get better and better," Davis said.
"The intensity in England is much higher, with the physicality and pace of the game. But it can definitely be improved, especially with good opponents like Japan and Thailand [in the AFC qualifiers]. Can learn a lot from the experience."
Chaintreuil says he needs to see more before finalising his opinion, but was excited by Davis' performance in the warm-up match.
"His technicality is very good, he reads the game well, and he can score. I want the team to grow with these kinds of players," he said. "He has a good potential for the future, but he needs to improve more, and play more games.
"So, for him, it's very important to play at the best level -- and England is a better level than Singapore's. So it's good for the future of the Singapore national team."
Davis has the dream of becoming the first Singaporean to play in the Premier League. At 1.72m and 60kg, he is slightly built in the mould of his Brazilian hero, Coutinho, who has scored 46 goals in 190 games for Liverpool since 2013.
"I like him and the way he plays. Stylish. He's very quick on the ball," Davis said.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.