It was a resignation which raised more questions than it answered about Singapore’s dismal SEA Games campaign, one which ended in a disappointing group-stage exit and without an expected medal.
But after staying silent for a month following his shock resignation as coach of the ill-fated national Under-23 football team, former national skipper Aide Iskandar has decided to speak out on a national project that, he said, conceded too many “own goals” within the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).
“At times it felt like we were battling each other instead of the opposition,” said the 40-year-old of the challenges he faced at the FAS, in his first comments since stepping down immediately after his side’s final group match against Indonesia on June 11.
In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, Aide made it clear that he was more than prepared to take the SEA Games fallout solely on his shoulders. But after weeks of soul searching, in which he replayed the events of the past two years in his mind, the former defender has decided to speak out for the sake of the sport.
He said: “The resignation was my way of taking responsibility for what happened. I was the coach and the buck stops with me. I wanted to protect the team, especially the players, who are still young.
“But I asked myself, ‘In the end, how is Singapore football benefiting from this episode?’ What happened at the SEA Games would be an even bigger disappointment if we didn’t learn from it and avoid making the same mistakes .
“Yes, I could have done things better as a coach. But ultimately, my job was also made unnecessarily challenging.”
“Challenging” was the word he used to describe his tenure as coach when he resigned. It was also the term sports administrators picked up on, as they sought to meet the former coach in the last few weeks to find out just what went wrong.
For Aide, the “challenges” all arose from the FAS – especially the national teams’ department under head coach Bernd Stange – not being clear about what its key objective for the year was.
On the one hand, the FAS had announced that the SEA Games would take top priority this year. Yet, at times, it was as if it was merely paying lip service to the idea.
Initial plans to keep the SEA Games team together for the year went awry when key players Sahil Suhaimi and Faris Ramli were allowed to join the LionsXII in the Malaysia Super League instead of staying as part of Aide’s Courts Young Lions team, who play in the S-League.
Then came a series of puzzling moves from within the national teams’ department.
For one thing, fitness coaches were switched late last year, even though the U-23 team were progressing well under Aleksandar Bozenko.
Bozenko had worked with the team and Aide when they won a SEA Games bronze in 2013 and narrowly missed out on making the next round at last year’s Incheon Asian Games. In South Korea, the team held their own against stronger sides, losing narrowly to Tajikistan and drawing against Oman before beating Palestine, the first win by a Singapore team at the Asian Games since 1990.
But Aide was instructed to take on German Juergen Raab as his new fitness coach, a move he never signed off on and one which he strongly objected to. Raab, who joined the FAS last October, had previously worked with Stange in Germany.
Aide was told that Raab had to be assigned to the SEA Games team because funding had been sought from Sport Singapore for him to work specifically with the team.
Said Aide: “Even when I pointed out how the team did not seem to be responding to Raab and his methods, which resulted in declining fitness levels, I was still asked to keep him on.”
It was not until April that Aide managed to push the FAS into bringing in former international Kadir Yahaya to help oversee the players’ fitness. Yet, with only two months to go to the Games, there was only so much that could be done.
It resulted in the team banking on a long-ball game during the SEA Games, a move for which Aide came under heavy criticism.
Explaining the decision, he said: “The coaches (Kadir and S. Subramani) and I decided that we did not have the fitness levels to play a possession-based game. It would have left us prone to the counter-attack and we would not be able to recover in time.”
Coaching changes also hampered the team’s preparations just before the tournament. U-23 goalkeeper coach John Burridge asked to be reassigned to the senior team just weeks before the SEA Games. It forced Aide to scramble for a replacement, but more importantly, the change affected his players’ confidence.
Said Aide: “First-choice goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari actually came up to me and asked, ‘What did I do wrong that John wanted to leave?'”
Added Syazwan: “John’s departure affected my confidence because it was quite abrupt. When he left, the way we trained changed and it was too late and sudden to adapt to the new training style.”
Syazwan had a decent Games but made two mistakes in their second match that resulted in both Myanmar goals in the 1-2 loss on June 4.
Team confidence also took another blow just days before the Games when attacker Iqbal Hussain was dropped from the squad for disciplinary reasons, only to be promoted to the senior squad by Stange for the Lions’ World Cup qualifiers.
The move infuriated the Young Lions, who felt the German was undermining Aide and creating unnecessary drama at a crucial time. The reserve players on the SEA Games team were also unsettled, wondering if perhaps it would have been better for them to have been excluded from Aide’s team so they could also feature in the senior side.
Said Aide: “This was the most puzzling move. I told coach Bernd and the management and we decided that it would not have been wise to call up Iqbal given the circumstances. Yet he was called up.”
The three-time Asean Football Confederation Cup winning defender, capped 121 times by the nation, acknowledged that eyebrows will be raised over his decision to speak up about the torrid campaign.
Sources acknowledged that there was also a falling out between Stange and Aide, the German’s former assistant. It got to a point where the FAS’ senior management had to step in to prevent the German from upsetting the SEA Games team’s preparation. At times, Aide was more involved in meetings to resolve disputes than coaching.
When asked about the alleged breakdown in the relationship, Aide declined comment but said he had submitted a report to the FAS about the SEA Games failure.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the opportunity and the resources the team got in terms of training trips to Japan and Turkey,” said Aide of the reported $3.5 million which had been invested in the team to help them at least reach the SEA Games final.
“But I feel it does not serve Singapore football best if I don’t raise all that went wrong at the SEA Games. This is why I hope lessons can be learnt from the SEA Games disappointment. Many of the problems my team faced could have been avoided.”