Tampines' Rovers AFC Cup hopes hit by Singapore youth-first policy

The 2018 AFC Cup hopes of Tampines Rovers have been thrown into jeopardy by the controversial Singapore plan to limit the number of players over the age of 30.

Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will introduce a youth-flavoured policy as part of sweeping changes next year that will mean a minimum of six under-23 players per S.League squad, and a limit on the number of older players.

Depending on squad size, S.League clubs will be able to sign between only two and four over 30s for next season.

Tampines, who were runners-up in 2017, had nine players of that vintage last season, but are retaining only Daniel Bennett, Fahrudin Mustafic, Khairul Amri and Fazrul Nawaz for 2018.

Jurgen Raab's side will be in Group H of the 2018 AFC Cup, with Malaysia's Johor Darul Tarul Ta'zim (JDT), Indonesia's Persija Jakarta and Song Lam Ghe An, of Vietnam, their likely opponents.

With the new rules making an immediate impact, Tampines chairman Desmond Ong has been forced to change his recruitment strategy.

"There were three players in the 28-29-year-old range that I was interested in but they will hit the 30 mark in the next two years. So I didn't sign them," Ong told The Straits Times.

"I have mixed feelings towards the U30 age quota. It is very good that the S.League aims to produce more young players. They will rejuvenate the league and make it more vibrant and credit has to go to the FAS for promoting youth.

"But age is not the only barometer. It is not [defender] Bennett's fault that he is 39. He remains one of my best players and not many strikers can get past him."

In fact, Bennett, who has 142 international caps, will turn 40 on Jan. 7.

Fellow defender Ismadi Mukhtar, who celebrates his 34th birthday on Dec. 16 and has earned seven international caps, hasn't been so lucky. He left the Stags at the end of the 2017 season, but hasn't been able to find a new club with the restrictions on signing older players.

"I have maybe two or three years [of playing time] left, but maybe I won't play anymore," Ismadi said. "I still have the hunger for the game, but I have a son to feed and it's frustrating to go through this [contract situation] every year.

"[The age quota] is ridiculous. How are the younger players going to develop if there are not enough experienced players to guide them?

"Also, this is age discrimination. We have become the laughing stock of the region."

Singapore failed to win a game at senior level in 2017, and Japanese invitees Albirex Niigata (S) won a quadruple of trophies for a second consecutive year.