SINGAPORE – Excitement is building as the national women’s football team prepare for their historic debut at the Sept 23-Oct 8 Asian Games, though the Lionesses will be missing several players when they line up on the pitch in Hangzhou – including key attacker Nur Izzati Rosni.
Izzati ruled herself out of selection, forward Lila Tan withdrew from the national team, while former captain Ernie Sontaril was dropped from the 29-member squad. Some of the reasons cited by these players included the need to prioritise their mental health, while The Straits Times understands other factors included difficulties adapting to the coach’s style and communication with football officials.
An important figure in the Lionesses’ attack, Izzati withdrew from the squad after the Cambodia SEA Games in May, when Singapore narrowly missed out on the semi-finals with two losses and a win. At the Hanoi SEA Games in 2022, her 95th-minute strike in the 1-0 win over Laos gave Singapore their first victory in the competition since 1985. She scored against Laos again in Phnom Penh in their 2-1 win.
Calling it “the most difficult football decision” she has had to make, the 24-year-old said she had been looking forward to competing at the Asiad.
She said: “At this point I’d rather pay more attention to improving my mental well-being, try to bring my confidence back to where it was, and to start enjoying football again.
“I have learnt in my career so far that successful teams have a safe learning environment in which players’ voices are heard, and emotional support is provided across the board, to develop trust and a mutual understanding.”
Noting that women athletes will feel “safe and supported… as long as teams have a positive environment”, she added: “I did not, and that’s why I pulled out of the team. And moving forward I want to immerse myself in more positive elements and work on my emotional well-being.”
Tan decided to remove herself from the national set-up after the SEA Games as she had initially planned to pursue her studies overseas, as well as other commitments.
Tan, 20, said: “I feel like I’ve been playing the sport I love under an environment that had pernicious effects on my mental health, which had reflected negatively on my performance – I have not been able to play at my optimal state.”
Ernie, who has over 50 caps for Singapore, said: “Fitness, technique and tactics are important in football. But I believe these facets can come to the fore only if there is trust and understanding in a safe environment in which we can provide feedback and know that it will at least be heard, if not taken on board.”
In response to queries, Singapore head coach Karim Bencherifa, who was appointed in February, stressed that he and his coaching staff have always encouraged communication with players.
The Moroccan said: “I actively engage in conversations with players to provide constructive feedback aimed at their improvement, never with the intention of being personal or disparaging.
“Instead, it is meant to motivate them because, as the head coach, I am well aware of the need for positive player management.”
ST understands that one of the players felt her suggestions on how she could be played more effectively were instead viewed as going against the coach’s game plan. She had sought advice and support from team officials as she felt mentally overwhelmed, but was told her comments were seen as complaints.
Some also had difficulties adapting to Bencherifa’s coaching style. The ex-Morocco national women’s team coach is known to be strict and straightforward – shouting during training and demanding a lot from his players.
One player acknowledged that he is a passionate coach who may be trying to give constructive feedback, but that players’ reactions to different styles can vary.
There were other current national footballers who did not see his coaching style as an issue, noting that players should adapt accordingly.
“If the training itself is intense and the coach demands this or that, it’s normal because that’s how a player can improve,” said captain Siti Rosnani Azman.
Meetings were also held between team officials, Bencherifa and the players individually over the past few months to discuss their concerns. Julie Teo, the Football Association of Singapore’s women’s committee chairman, also counselled them.
Bencherifa stressed that he expects discipline and professionalism on and off the field, and sets high standards because he believes in the team’s potential. Under his tenure, the Lionesses moved up the world rankings from world No. 134 to 130.
He said: “I push my players hard on the pitch during training as well as during matches because they need to toughen themselves both physically and mentally if they are to face opponents who are fitter and tactically better in the international arena.
“Since taking over in March, most players have responded positively to our coaching methods, as indicated by the feedback that I have received. Ultimately, my responsibility is to consider the team’s collective welfare, as no single player should overshadow the team’s unity and success.”
Bencherifa attributed Tan and Ernie’s absence from the squad as a natural progression that comes with a change in management, which influences “playing philosophy, training methods, and expectations on and off the field”.
He added: “Changes typically can bring about resistance, but I am glad the majority of the team have adapted well to the environment, and are fully focused on the mission ahead.”
The Moroccan acknowledged that Izzati’s absence “is unfortunate, but we shall respect her personal decision to sit this out”.
“We have confidence in the players who are currently part of the squad,” he added.
“They share our collective goal and are dedicated to giving their best for the team’s success.”
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