Former Lions coach … winner or loser?

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By Michael Y.P. Ang

Singapore’s national football coach from 2003 to 2012, Radojko (Raddy) Avramović, is the most successful coach in the history of ASEAN’s football championship. The Serbian engineered three ASEAN title triumphs from five attempts while sitting in Singapore football’s hot seat.

No wonder Myanmar, seeking to regain its past dominance in the ASEAN region, has hired Avramović to coach its national and Under-23 teams. Given his track record within South-east Asia, Avramović is not just an excellent choice but the ideal man for Myanmar football.

However, if the Myanmar Football Federation harbours loftier ambitions beyond winning the ASEAN championship or SEA Games gold, Avramović could not be a worse choice, if his track record with the Lions on the much-more-competitive continental stage is anything to go by.

Although Avramović has guided Kuwait’s Under-23 team to the 2000 Olympics, where they even scored a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic, one must not forget that Myanmar or Singapore is no Kuwait. The emirate possesses a much stronger football culture, with a tradition of continental excellence ASEAN countries can only dream of.

The challenge of guiding a team like Kuwait and that of leading Myanmar or Singapore (or any other ASEAN team) to elite-level excellence are worlds apart.

Kuwait qualified for the 1982 World Cup Finals, where they drew 1-1 with the former Czechoslovakia and lost only 0-1 to England. The Middle East country also won the quadrennial Asian Cup in 1980, after narrowly losing the final in 1976, and was a semi-finalist on two other occasions, in 1984 and 1996.

Kuwait is still a serious contender on the Asian stage even without Avramović.

In stark contrast, other than being Asian Cup runner-up in 1968 and winning the Asian Games gold in 1966 and 1970, Myanmar has achieved nothing noteworthy since.

Smoke and mirrors

Last Thursday, in its report on Avramović taking the Myanmar job, The Straits Times highlighted that “he guided the Lions to within a draw away from qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup finals”. This, however, obscures the Serbian’s coaching abilities with smoke and mirrors.

It is true, Singapore would have reached the Asian Cup Finals with a draw against Jordan in March 2010. However, the key question is: why was Avramović unable to guide Singapore to victory over Thailand in a November 2009 qualifier, which the Lions lost 1-3, despite having home-ground advantage and foreign-born players?

Defeating Thailand on home soil is no Herculean task. The Lions had beaten the Thais before, even without naturalised players. Had the Lions defeated Thailand, their last match against Jordan would have been inconsequential, because Singapore would already have reached the Asian Cup Finals even before facing Jordan.

Furthermore, for the first time in almost two decades, the Lions ended their Asian Cup qualifying campaign with the dreaded wooden spoon.

The results (shown below) of Singapore’s last 10 competitive matches against higher-ranked teams outside ASEAN, while under the management of Avramović, indicate a coach who was out of his depth.

ASIAN CUP QUALIFIERS

January 2009   lost to Iran (away)        0-6

January 2009   beat Jordan (home)    2-1

January 2010   lost to Iran (home)       1-3

March 2010   lost to Jordan (away)  1-2

WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS

September 2011   lost to China (away)    1-2

September 2011   lost to Iraq (home)       0-2

October 2011   lost to Jordan (home)  0-3

November 2011   lost to Jordan (away)   0-2

November 2011   lost to China (home)    0-4

February 2012   lost to Iraq (away)        1-7

The Straits Times describes Avramović as a coach who is “known to be a shrewd tactician” and “noted for his meticulous planning and the way he uses set-pieces and counter-attacks to exploit the opponents’ weaknesses.”

His shrewd tactics and meticulous planning might have been good enough to outwit ASEAN teams, but when Singapore needed him most, on the Asian stage, he failed us despite drawing a much higher salary, funded by taxpayers, than a Singaporean coach.

Instead of improving after that January 2009 victory over Jordan, the Lions kept deteriorating under Avramović.

In all the above matches, the national team included foreign-born players because Avramović seemingly preferred to build his team around a core group of naturalised players.

How many imported players did new Lions coach, German Bernd Stange, field when Singapore hosted Syria in an October 2013 Asian Cup qualifier? Zero. The result? The Lions won 2-1, thanks to Gabriel Quak’s match-winner, the first winning goal by a Singaporean in almost five years since Noh Alam Shah’s 2009 winner against Jordan.