Young Lions bend no-foreigner rule for El-Masri

Courts Young Lions are set to perform a remarkable U-turn with their no-foreigner policy for 2013 after signing Canadian winger Sherif El-Masri for this season.

El-Masri goes on a trademark run down the left!
Gabriel Tan

By Gabriel Tan

The developmental side operating under the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced an all-local squad for the upcoming Great Eastern-YEO's S.League campaign in last month's unveiling at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Back then, new coach Aide Iskandar had confirmed there would be no foreigners in the Young Lions squad as they look to nurture Singapore's finest youngsters for the 2013 and 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.

Therefore, a few eyebrows were raised when El-Masri, who was one of their stars last term, turned up for training on Monday and he later confirmed he would be plying his trade for the side again this year.

"It looked as though last year was going to be my final year," he said. "But... one more year I guess!

"I was always in their plans but I guess they just took awhile to contact me. I was about to go somewhere else but then they actually called me back last week, so I just came in today [Monday] at five in the evening and straight to training.

"It was all of a sudden but I was okay with it so I just said 'why not?'"

Although he spent last season wearing number 20, El-Masri had '27' on the back of his training kit on Monday, and a change in squad number is not the only thing that will be different about him in 2013.

Gone are the curly locks that were as recognisable as his blinding runs down the left flank. However, the 23-year-old promised to contribute to the team's cause as much as he did last year.

"I've actually had the hair for three years and I needed a change so I decided to take them all off!" the affable El-Masri revealed.

"It's going to be hard because every other team has five foreigners but we only have one. Everyone's going to have to step up their game.

"I'm going to have to work five times harder and it's going to be tough, but it's good to be back as the only foreigner.

Although Young Lions have always had the odds stacked against them given the age limit imposed on their squad, 2013 looks set to be an even tougher year after it was confirmed they would be largely made up of under-21 players, apart from a few seniors like winger Fazli Ayob, and defenders Emmeric Ong and Afiq Yunos.

Given all the other forwards in the side are below the age of 21, Aide admits the addition of El-Masri will play an important role in their hopes for this season.

"He has been looking for a club and we believe that he has the potential to contribute in this team," the ex-Singapore captain explained.

"He will give us a lot more experience up front as he has been in Singapore playing at this level for three years before this."

Aide also revealed that El-Masri, who played for the Canada U-23 side in two Olympic qualifiers against United States and El Salvador, is under consideration for the FAS' Foreign Talent Scheme (FTS), which has seen them hand Singapore passports to the likes of Daniel Bennett, Shi Jiayi and Aleksandar Duric in recent years.

"Actually, it [the signing of El-Masri] works both ways," he added.

"Sherif is under the radar of the FAS for the FTS."

For now though, the Ontario native, whose name stems from having a Tunisian father, will have to bide his time as he is ineligible for citizenship until he resides in the country for five years.

Nonetheless, he is still ready to do his part in helping Singapore challenge for the gold medal in the end-of-year SEA Games, by helping his club-mates in whatever way possible over the next ten months.

"I've been with some of these players over the past year or so and some of them look up to me," El-Masri revealed.

"Maybe they can learn from my experiences and whatever I can give, I'm willing to share and help them with."

Unfortunately for Young Lions, the fact that he only arrived on Monday means it is unlikely he will be registered in time for the season opener against Hougang United on Wednesday, something which El-Masri is looking to make up for in next Thursday's trip to defending champions Tampines Rovers.

"I am excited to be back in the S.League and I actually can't wait for all the paperwork and everything to be done," he added.

"I think I'm missing the first game, which I'm mad about, but I can't wait to get started and do my part in our second match."

One player who could be involved against the Cheetahs is former Warriors FC defender Eddie Chang, who was a second surprise face at training on Monday.

While the 22-year-old, who is eligible to represent Singapore at this year's SEA Games, is said to have found a fulltime job outside football after parting ways with the Warriors at the end of the last season, he reveals it will not affect his commitment to his new club.

"It is true that I currently have a proper job but both my employers and the FAS have been very supportive in helping arrange this," he said.

"I received the call a week or two ago and was asked to come down for a medical and some tests and they've gone smoothly.

"I'm looking forward to playing for Young Lions and I should be registered in time for Wednesday's game."

 Unless Aide springs a few more surprises in the coming days, El-Masri, Chang, Afiq, Ong and Fazli will be the only five Young Lions players above the age of 21 in 2013.

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