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 By Kenneth Tan

S.League announces changes for 2018, focus on youth development

As a dismal 2017 for Singapore football draws to a close, John Wilkinson joins Jason Dasey to reveal his hopes for 2018.

The 2018 S.League season will be played under new youth-oriented competition rules in a bid to revive the country's ailing sport, as confirmed by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Monday evening.

All six local clubs -- Tampines Rovers, Home United, Geylang International, Warriors FC, Hougang United and Balestier Khalsa -- will have to register a minimum squad of 19 players and a maximum of 25.

Of this, in a squad of between 19-22 players, six got to be under the age of 23 while eight got to be under 30. For the remaining slots, they are free to register any players -- including a maximum of two foreign players.

For any increase of squad size between 23-25 players, the increment will have to be of a player in the U23 category.

Each club are required to put at least three U23 players in the starting line-up for every game. Should any of them need to be substituted in the first half, the individual will need to be replaced by another U23 player.

Meanwhile champions and Japanese satellite club Albirex Niigata (S) have also agreed to align with FAS' youth philosophy as they will register half a team of U23 players and half a team of U21 players with only one player in the open category.

They will also have the option to have two Singaporean players on their roster.

As for the other foreign club, Brunei DPMM, discussions are currently underway on their squad composition for next season.

Garena Young Lions -- which essentially consists of the country's U23 footballers -- will make up the nine-team league. They will feature in the S.League for the next two seasons to prepare for the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 SEA Games.

While there are certain quarters of the local football fraternity hitting out at the age restrictions, FAS president Lim Kia Tong believes that change is necessary to help the Singapore national team -- which is currently languishing at 170th in the FIFA rankings and did not win a single game in 2017.

"Currently there is no or little pathway for youth players to get exposure and we know that clubs are quite reluctant to fill Under-23 players," he told reporters.

"These players need to play constantly to get the skill sets required for the international level. High intensity is the name of the game now, so we came up with this under-23 concept.

"We're languishing in the [FIFA] rankings and that gives us some pressure, it's about time we acknowledge this necessity."

Football Association of Singapore members announce reforms for 2018 S.League season
Football Association of Singapore members announce reforms for 2018 S.League season.

FAS deputy vice-president Bernard Tan also weighed in and rejected claims that the new rules reek of age discrimination.

"We had 26 players over the age of 30 last season, the maximum we will allow in 2018 is 36. So that's not the case," he said.

"It's [the rule] not meant to be evil and we're not here to destroy lives. We were careful in implementing this and the most important thing is to look after Singapore football on a whole.

After years of using the same formula, we need to change our perspective and look at the long term.

"Why is there the need for this cap [on younger players]? We all know players reach their peak around the age of 27 and we need to make sure they have the chance to play regularly.

"Last year, only five to six under-23 players played regularly. We want to have a bigger pool of players to improve the quality of Singapore football."

A League Implementation Task Force has been in put in place to oversee these changes to the League.

FAS vice-presidents Teo Hock Seng and S Thavaneson sit as ex-officio members, and the taskforce consists of members from the FAS secretariat and representatives from relevant stakeholders, including the participating S.League clubs.

The season will kick off on March 31, 2018 with a curtain-raiser between Quadruple winners Albirex and league runners-up Tampines in the Community Shield carnival at the Singapore Sports Hub.

Key changes to 2018 S.League (summarised):

1. The six local clubs got to register a minimum six U23 players and a minimum of eight U30 players.

2. Japanese club Albirex Niigata (S) have the option to register two Singaporean players on their roster.

3. Foreign player quota cut from three to two, with no age restrictions

4. League matches will be played on weekends at 5.30 p.m., with community and grassroot engagement as curtain-raisers

5. The League Cup is dropped for a season to ease fixture congestion

6. 2.4 kilometre fitness test replaced by Yo-yo test, a multi-stage shuttle run which will be held twice or thrice over the season

7. Fitness coach mandatory to be hired for every club

8. Clubs are assured of a funding sum of S$888,2000 -- a reduction of about 19 percent

Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT

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