It would be a miracle if Singapore national team head coach Bernd Stange were to see out the remainder of his two-year contract with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) after an Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup campaign that concluded with a 1-3 loss to Malaysia last night.
For the 66-year-old German to see out his first and last competitive regional campaign was already remarkable. A poor AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign could have seen him being given the boot by more impatient football associations.
It was not too long ago that under Avramovic, Singapore were punching above the weight in Asia. However, our elimination following last night’s 1-3 loss to Malaysia showed how far we have fallen after just less than two years under the German.
While the effort was there, the lack of direction under Stange’s stewardship prior to the tournament should have sounded more than just a few alarm bells.
The final panel of four responsible for the selection of Stange in 2013 – comprising of FAS President Zainudin Nordin, FAS Advisor Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, FAS Secretary-general Winston Lee and 2014 Asian Games chef-de-mission and Singapore Bowling Federation President Jessie Phua – showed a lack of thoroughness in putting his career under intense scrutiny.
Had they gone over his record as the head coach, especially with the national teams of East Germany, Iraq and Belarus, more closely, they might have come to the conclusion that his record in leading these teams has been pretty mediocre – teams which had much better players and stronger football infrastructure and culture than Singapore, based on results in qualifying alone.
While he might have laid the framework for the Iraqi national team, he would not have inspired them the manner Jorvan Vieria did as they embarked on a fairy-tale run towards the historic 2007 Asian Cup triumph.
Thus, bereft of any significant achievement despite his journeyman reputation in trawling across clubs and national teams across Europe, Asia and Australia, Singapore looked like a tempting opportunity to create his own legend – even if it meant destroying all the decent work his predecessor Radjoko Avramovic made during a ten-year tenure before him.
Knowing our country’s obsession with rankings and capitalising on it, he declared his first target to raise our world football ranking. That was to be his first of several missteps he would make during his one-and-a-half year reign with the Lions thus far.
While that sounded noble, the flawed nature of the rankings, which was based on a mathematical formula over a four-year period with previous years’ points earned depreciating in value, would not correctly reflect the relative strength of the Southeast Asian football region.
For that to happen, Stange and the FAS National Teams Department would have to arrange regular sparring matches against nations higher ranked than them. Easier said than done though, chiefly because the leading Asian football nations would already have their friendly match schedule packed at least a year in advance, making any chance of a Singapore friendly slim.
Furthermore, unless they had a specific reason to prepare, like dealing with another Southeast Asian country in a qualifier, a friendly match with Singapore would not be of much competitive value and thus undesirable.
Distance – given the humongous stretch of land and sea mass from Amman to Canberra – and cost were further challenges.
Avramovic faced these challenges too, but yet he was usually able to bring the national team out for regular trips to the Middle East partially due to his sound reputation as a coach in that region, while Stange did not have the credibility to replicate the same.
Reduced to scouring for similar or lower-level opponents in Asia, the incumbent sought to remove as many signs of the Serb’s legacy as he could.
That would lead to dropping several players who had served so loyally under Avramovic as he tried – as he mentioned several times early in his term – to impose his own preferred tactical system to the national team.
From removing all the foreign-born nationals to deliberate errors of omission in some experienced locals, he opted to disregard their prior experience in taking on second-tier Asian football nations. Those who had been deeply ingrained in the Avramovic system, save for a few, would be slowly sidelined.
What he was trying to do would have been more suitable for the inculcation of local children and teenagers as a technical director, rather than the adults who went through the Serbian’s football lessons while making their breakthroughs in the national team under the predecessor.
That insistence to have the Lions play his way – and no other way – has often left his players befuddled, with the last straw coming from the uninspiring 4-2 win over Cambodia.
To the Lions’ brave credit, they chose to abandon that concept and do what they knew best during the Suzuki Cup. While it was too late to erase the confusion that resulted in defeats against Malaysia and Thailand, their labour saw them lauded by our compatriots who are no fools when it comes to appreciating effort given.
The most fatal misstep Stange committed was to ignore the usefulness of those experienced hands that could have come in handy against regional opposition in the biennial tournament. His explanation given at the post-match conference following the Malaysia debacle was they would have been disadvantaged in terms of pace as today’s game was one “for the young men”.
People can say that he removed the foreign-born players from the national team and had to deal with a transitional squad ahead of the tournament. While these arguments were valid, the game at this level is still quite sedate, in comparison to the fast-paced game often seen at the higher echelons of world football.
While that would have been plausible against the teams outside of the region, Malaysia and Thailand were similarly paced and the likes of Fahrudin Mustafic and Shi Jiayi would have brought composure in such high-pressure situations. By discarding them at the first go, he clearly believed the Avramovic influence would undermine what he – and his ego – desired to achieve.
As if that was not enough, dropping one of the most experienced internationals, Isa Halim, by deeming him unsuitable for his football system in the national team was puzzling because the 28-year-old LionsXII player could still offer something despite a poor season at club level. He would certainly have provided more protection for the defence with his resoluteness on the pitch and versatility in occupying the right-back position, one he has played several times in his career.
While the starting right-back Ismadi Mukhtar had a decent tournament debut at the age of 31 until his late horror show against the Causeway rivals, his call-up raised questions. As credible as the Tampines player is, he lacks the international experience and composure Juma’at Jantan and Ismail Yunos, who were both also overlooked, could have offered.
His choices of Ismadi and several Courts Young Lions players were primarily motivated the fact that he was too keen to erase any trace of Avramovic, and these were the ones who were not influenced by the Serbian then and would make easy moulding for him to shape how he desired in his ideal Lions set-up.
In his desperate attempts to stamp out the shadow of Avramovic that was still lurking large in the local set-up, he got himself into a huge mess thanks to these major mistakes he committed. Six out of eight wins during his 20-match stint with the Lions came against Asean minnows – Myanmar (twice), Laos (thrice) and Cambodia. Another came against lowly-ranked Oceania side Papua New Guinea and the last was a lucky 2-1 Asian Cup qualifying home win over Syria.
Failure to deliver results when it really mattered – in the Asian Cup qualifiers and Suzuki Cup – showed he had failed miserably at his job. If Vincent Subramaniam and Jan Poulsen were sacked after failing to get past the group stage of the biennial regional showpiece – and losing to Malaysia in the group, why should Stange be given the a of execution after similarly poor results in the tournament capped by a deserved loss to our causeway rivals?
Never in the class of his more esteemed compatriots Otto Rehhagel, Ottmar Hitzfield and Jupp Heynckes, the only viable option is for Stange to go. Only then can Singapore football be freed from a tragi-comedy that has lasted way too long.
Whether it is a foreigner or a local, the next person to take the hot seat has to show confidence and not to be overawed by Avramovic’s shadow. Any incoming coach needs to build on the decent legacy the Serbian has left, instead of indulging in the shambolic mess we are now left with.
Please go, for your own good, Bernd Walter Stange. You are out of depth, even in Southeast Asia, and talk too much of a good game but fail to deliver. Singapore has seen and heard enough.