BY SANJAY NAIR AND JONATHAN WONG, Straits Times
THE Lions’ disastrous defeat by Malaysia was played out in front of 48,183 fans at the National Stadium on Saturday, but deep-rooted issues between the national footballers and coach Bernd Stange apparently surfaced less than six months into his reign, which began in May last year.
Sources said the German was involved in a bust-up over tactics with a player during a friendly defeat and that the incident sparked a growing divide in the dressing room.
Accusations of favouritism and puzzling strategies followed and several key players were so upset that they voiced their displeasure during a feedback session with Football Association of Singapore (FAS) general secretary Winston Lee in October.
Speaking to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, national players said the squad were “poorly prepared” and “very angry” going into the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.
Defending champions Singapore embarrassingly crashed out at the group phase after the 1-3 defeat to arch-foes Malaysia. Earlier, they fell 1-2 to Thailand in the opening game and survived some tense moments before eventually beating Myanmar 4-2.
“We knew on the eve of the tournament that reaching the semi-finals would have been a miracle,” said one player.
“Stange was insistent on his tiki-taka system, but the players felt for the Asean game, the direct approach was more effective.”
The coach’s CV is not in question, in light of the fact that he has managed the international teams of the former East Germany, Oman, Iraq and Belarus in a 35-year career.
Singapore players, however, were accustomed to clear instructions during training and matches from previous coach Raddy Avramovic, who led the side to three regional titles thanks to an in-depth knowledge of regional opponents.
Three Lions also accused Stange – who has coached the likes of former Arsenal winger Alexander Hleb – of coming down strongly on the team’s senior players while granting the youngsters a longer leash.
One veteran noted that the younger players needed “more pushing”.
Striker Sahil Suhaimi, 22, however, backed his coach. He said: “(Stange) was harsh with everyone.
“If the senior player wasn’t doing his job the coach would scold him. After all, they are our role models and we look up to them for motivation.”
Nevertheless, Stange’s penchant for pitting rookies against the veterans in training matches did not go down well because the starting XI could not work on partnerships and link-up play before a game.
His policy of only revealing the starting line-up on the morning of a match – and not explaining why players were dropped from the previous fixture – also created uncertainty in the ranks because players were unsure of their positions and what to work on.
“Bernd comes from Europe, even our best players are not on par with those from Belarus. We need to be properly trained,” said one player, who was hoping for more guidance.
When the 66-year-old took on the national post, he excited fans by vowing to instill an attractive pass-and-move system built around a combination of sports science and player analytics.
But, aside from a few glimpses of this high-tempo, quick-passing style in the 1-2 loss to Thailand, the Lions reverted to a familiar pattern for much of the campaign.
Long balls were launched from defence into the opponent’s half, bypassing the midfield for striker Khairul Amri to chase, while a reliance on set pieces remained – four of Singapore’s six goals were the result of set-pieces.
As fans come to terms with the latest setback for Singapore football, it was left to two players to sum up what went wrong over the last week: “Stange doesn’t want to listen to us, so it’s hard for us to listen to him.”
The other added: “We were not a team during the tournament.”