Youth Football in Singapore: An Interview with A.C. Milan’s Technical Director Antonio Corbellini
Football is a huge part of Singapore’s sporting landscape. In recent years, many football clubs have set up academies in Asia, the latest being Italian club AC Milan setting up a soccer school in Singapore. We catch up with AC Milan’s technical director Antonio Corbellini for his insights on youth development in Asia and Singapore.
Antonio Corbellini and A.C. Milan
EdChron.com: How did you get involved with AC Milan?
Antonio Corbellini: I’m an architect by background, and joined the AC Milan Youth Sector in 2010. I’ve spent the last 5 years overseeing the development schools in Italy, Puerto Rico, Egypt, and now Singapore. Before joining AC Milan, I was responsible for the youth academy of Serie B’s Brescia Calcio and Serie C1 side Lumezzane Calcio and was coaching at many other clubs in Italy.
EdC: Were you also a professional football player in Italy?
AC: I was playing for Castiglione till I retired due to a knee injury and played in Quinzano, Romanese, and a very successful 10 years with Cremonese, which currently sits in the upper half of Serie C1. I played in the Cremonese Calcio youth sector from the age of 11 years until turning 21. At that point, I followed a typical journeyman’s career through the Serie C and Serie B until I was forced to retire from play at the age of 28.
EdC: Was coaching something you’ve wanted to do after you retired?
AC: I’ve always had an interest in club technical management, so I pursued some informal training provided by the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio), the Italian football association, and worked my way through the ranks of the youth sector. I’ve also gone through operational and management training, which gives you the skills required for success in youth football organizations.
EdC: What do you think of footballing standards in Asia?
AC: In Asia, the level of footballing standards needs to be improved especially with regards to tactical execution and also the intensity and speed of player movements. Lower levels of fitness and lack of coordination training are also readily apparent in observation.
If I compare with the football in Europe these are the most obvious differences I can see.
To develop these aspects, we need to start to apply these in training when the players are still young, about 8-10 years old, certainly no older than 12 years.
EdC: Why start a football school in Singapore?
AC: The AC Milan Soccer School has come to Singapore primarily because people were asking for a different system of training and development for the young players, like those found commonly in Europe.
Our local principal chose to partner with Milan because of its reputation for state-of-the-art technical and tactical training, and its full-system approach, including the Milan Junior, which is a satellite data-collection application of the central Milan Lab at Milanello, the first team’s training center.
The Milan Soccer School is a direct extension of the AC Milan Academy, unlike other programs which are related to their main club’s foundation or community program department, as opposed to their competitive training academy.
Youth Football in Singapore
EdC: What do you think is lacking in Singapore’s football scene?
AC: What I see as lacking can be classified as the modern mentality, the modern thinking, of youth soccer training. These newer systems have been developed in the last 10-15 years, and require intensive trainer upgrading by qualified instructor trainers.
Competitive training and competitions start at too early an age in Singapore, which stifles the focus on pure development, substituting winning as the measure of success. In Europe, the early focus for the kids is touches of the ball; the more touches, the more the player can improve. Focus is on the player and the player’s touches, not on winning.
Another issue is the economics and ownership of facilities and the costs of coaches in Singapore, which force soccer schools to focus their primary efforts on acquiring more players in order to cover all the operating costs from player fees. From what I have seen, soccer schools in Singapore increase player-trainer ratios in order to keep player fees within reach of more players while still being able to cover their costs.
EdC: Do public schools help youth development in football and sports in Italy?
AC: In Italy, public schools don’t help youth development in football, but the players finish school every day at 1pm and then they have the entire afternoon to train with trainers specialized in football. And they typically do so at least 3 times per week. The training is always not more than 2 hours duration.
The main difference from the Singapore style of training is that in Italy, we divide the teams into small groups giving the players more possibility to play and trainers focus on more intensity.
It is up the public schools to mind the academic development of the children. Sports development is not within their mandate, as it is traditional for parents to take responsibility for choosing and managing their children’s non-academic interests.
EdC: How do you think Singapore schools can help improve the standard of youth development in football?
AC: From a macro perspective, the demonstration of modern European training for competitive players will improve youth football in Singapore. With the Milan Soccer School will now be a possibility for observation and comparison. We have identified a segment of the market which wants top quality, state-of-the-art effective youth soccer training and it is to this segment which the Milan Soccer School is targeted.
Getting to the question of Singapore schools and their role in this improvement program, this is a significant factor in enabling the standards-improvement program to take-hold on a wide-scale. Currently, school coaches seem to be hired on a tendering basis, with lowest or almost-lowest bid wins. The criteria is not based on the technologies of training, but rather on time and cost, with base AFC credentials being required. The decision process in hiring soccer coaches for schools should not just rest on Federation licenses, but should rather be combined with the content being delivered.
This is a chicken-egg situation. We need good trainers in order to succeed in a selection process upgrading. We need modern trainers, who have spent a lot of money on their education in technology, and we also need to have people qualified to evaluate such trainers. We then also need to have trainers who can train them. Singapore is currently far out of the mainstream, and needs to find a way to get into it. The FAS and AFC licenses are not the answer.
Maybe what we need is a type of Teachers College for football trainer or sports trainers in general. And this means a proper training center, not one run for profit and measured by the number of certificates issued.
There needs to be a better understanding of the need to invest to get quality, and also a better understanding in the differences between levels of technology which will then encourage and enable coaches to invest in their own education, especially when it results in the ability to charge higher for their fees.
Plans for Singapore
EdC: What plans does the new Milan football school have for Singapore? Can youths expect to play with the Milan youth team and learn from the pros?
AC: AC Milan is here to introduce a new system of training and organization with this soccer school, always putting the players at the centre of the project.
Everything is done to give the kids the best possibility to learn and improve not only football skills but also the fitness, the general health, the physiological and psychological aspects, along with social attitudes.
A program like the Milan Soccer School is a realistic avenue for children to perhaps realize their dream to learn from pros to become a pro, to play with a Milan youth team, or more realistically, to excel and be recognized to play in the Singapore national teams and for other pro-teams.
The recognized numbers for a player’s dream to be realized as a professional in Europe is 1 in 400,000. The Milan Soccer School helps bring those numbers down substantially, but it is still one-in-thousands when it comes to playing for AC Milan.
EdC: Are there any Singaporean talents heading to Milan for trials?
AC: Under UEFA rules, a player can trial at a Club in Europe only after reaching the age of 12 years and one day and can only play for a team after reaching the age of 16 years old.
When a player registers in AC Milan Soccer School, he becomes a member of a big family and every day his development and improvement are reported directly to AC Milan’s youth sector headquarters.
There are currently 2 Singapore young talents being tracked in Singapore by AC Milan’s youth sector. One is a 15-year-old goal-keeper. The second is a 12-year-old who is under-going medical tests and practical trials in Milan during this June. Both have been training under the Milan system for a year. Neither is yet eligible under FIFA rules for a call-up, but they will become eligible at age 16.
EdC: Some of our readers are physical education teachers. What tips can you share with them to help their training programme?
AC: I can suggest that it is better to start from a young age (5 or 6 years old) to divide the players into small groups and let them play deciding by themselves, rather than structuring play too much. Let them make mistakes and allow them to every day improve by themselves. De-emphasize winning, and focus on personal achievement and improvement.
Winning as a target should only become the major emphasis when they are in secondary school; certainly not in primary school.
Remember, a sports coach is a teacher and just like any academic or PE teacher, needs to be properly trained and properly compensated. Gone are the days when it was enough to give a teacher, who had some spare time and a desire to make some extra pocket money, a ball and point to a field to take the kids for football training or a match.
What Singapore youth football needs
EdC: What do you think Singapore needs before we can produce a world-class football team?
AC: Singapore needs to change mentality. Singapore needs to update and upgrade it football training technology. What makes a qualified football trainer and coach needs to be re-operationalized. And development by these updated coaches needs to be spread wide, perhaps separated completely from the public schools and focusing more on the more accessible community sports centers. (This, however, would require a new and very strict management system to assure that the right trainers are in place and they are training the right syllabus. This is a huge job.)
I repeat: the players are at the centre of the project, always and nothing else.
And finally, I repeat that, if at the end of the season the players haven’t improved in their skills, their tactics, their physiology/fitness and their psychology, this means that the work of the trainers was not so good. This means a full long-term sophisticated tracking system also needs to be implemented.
A soccer school, or a school soccer program, is for teaching, not for winning. The best soccer coaches are probably not those whose teams win their Nationals. If the rewards system only recognizes the winners and not the ones who develop their kids, this could be another element to be reviewed and changed.
This interview and images were facilitated and provided by Joe Keiser, principal of the Milan Soccer School Singapore. Thank you Joe!