Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s very own Izwan Mahbud had a trial with Matsumoto. The club was interested in Izwan after his heroic displays for the national team in their 0-0 away draw with Japan, where he made a remarkable 18 saves. However, unlike Anders, the J2 outfit did not offer a contract to the national team custodian. Anders’s loan move piqued my interest in the defender, and never did I imagine that I would get the opportunity to interview him. Here is his story of taking roads less travelled.

A Slightly Different Route to become a Professional Footballer

Anders started his football career like most other professional footballers and gradually went up through the system.

“As soon as I can run and walk, I was kicking a ball with my dad. Then, it got a bit serious in primary school, with the school team and then sports school after that,” he reveals.

However, he started to fall out of the system after graduating from the Singapore Sports School. While many of his peers went to pursue a diploma or a NITEC certification, Anders decided to take the A-Levels route and entered Victoria Junior College. It wasn’t always smooth sailing and Anders would be the first to tell you that it was difficult juggling football and the A-level curriculum.

“The academic demands of A-levels is a little rough. I stuck it through but the grades suffered a bit. When NS came calling, that was it. Basically, my unit didn’t release me to play.”

National Service is a duty that all Singaporean sons are required to serve by law. While many aspiring footballers get drafted into units that allow them to attend training sessions of the National Football Academy or their various football clubs, Anders didn’t have that opportunity. Posted into the Commandos, his schedule was packed with countless mandatory training drills and exercises that it was impossible for him to gain time off to train with the NFA team. That marked the end of his association with the NFA and also put a stop to his ambitions of becoming a professional footballer. Despite this, it didn’t deter Anders from leaving football altogether.

“I took a break. Well, not really a full break. I still played social Sunday Football for a few years. Then, I got scouted back into the NFL (National Football League).”

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

It was during his time playing in the NFL that he managed to impress earn a move to S.League side, Geylang International FC in 2016. However, he was yet again faced with a similar challenge of having to juggle his academics and football – although it was considerably tougher than his A-level days.

“I played a NFL Match against Yishun Sentek Mariners FC and they were coached by Noor Ali back then. At the end of the season [Noor made the move to Geylang as assistant coach], he called me down for a trial with Geylang. I was just entering my final year in [Nanyang Technological University]. The last time I juggled heavy academics and football, one of it suffered. Then again, I told myself that I might as well give it a shot – one last chance that is never going to come again – and so I did.”

One would expect to struggle making the jump from amateur to professional football but Anders was unfazed by the supposed disparity. In fact, he claims that it was a great feeling to be doing what he loves every day. Anders also says one reason why he quickly adapted to the level required at the S.League was because it suited his aggressive and physical style of play. Surprisingly, he also mentions that there isn’t as big a gulf between the NFL and S.League as one would think.

“At a team level, yes. There is a definite gulf in standard. But, when it comes to the technical skills and fitness of individual players, they are not very far off. They just need a bit more coaching and to do it more often.”

Anders finally returned to the football system after dropping out while serving his National Service. He had always kept tabs on the S.League because his NFA batch mates were featuring for their respective clubs. Now, it was different. He finally shared the same pitch as them, once again.

Juggling his Final Year in University and Playing Professionally

Photo by Lum3n from Pexels

In many ways, Anders is the ideal role model for Singaporeans who are passionate about pursuing a professional football career as well as earning a degree from a local university. Often, many Singaporean parents dissuade their children from becoming a professional footballer because they believe that it is an impractical career. Instead, most parents preach to their children that they should focus their time on earning a degree from a local university or a prestigious overseas one. Anders managed to do both, but it wasn’t easy playing professionally and studying at the same time.

“The hard part was travelling and time management because you know, NTU is in Jurong and Geylang is in Bedok. I stayed on campus when I was there and sometimes training was twice a day so I had to go for training in the morning, then rush back to class, and then go back to Bedok for training again.”

Many Singaporeans would agree that travelling from the West to the East in Singapore is a tiring affair and it was no different for Anders. It took a lot of discipline from him to ensure that he found a balance between football and his academics. To aspiring footballers, Anders urges them to pursue their academics as far as they can while finding a balance with their academics.

Representing the nation and Becoming the First Singaporean Player to play for Japan

Before long, Anders cemented his place as the starting centre-back in the Geylang squad. His performances caught the eye of then-national team manager V. Sundramoorthy, and he was called up to the Singapore squad in 2017. When he first informed that he had been called up to the national team, Anders didn’t buy it.

“I got a call from Leonard [Koh] who was back in Geylang. I thought he was bullshitting me. I was back in school and I told him ‘don’t [mess around], I’m damn tired, I’m trying to study.’ Then, the next day in training, he showed me the letter so it was a pleasant surprise.”

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

2018 was also the year the Anders made history by securing a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. In doing so, he became the first Singaporean player to play in Japan. It was an experience that Anders was grateful for because he learned a lot from his stint with the Japanese club. It was a very steep learning curve for Anders when he first arrived at Matsumoto.

“There was a gulf in class and standard between the SPL players. When you look at the Japanese players, I’d say they are one of the best in Asia. Alongside the Middle Easterns and the Koreans, they are really up there in Asia.

Besides gaining a lot of footballing experience from his stint with Matsumoto, Anders has also gained first hand experienced of the Japanese footballing system, something he regards as a model Singapore should follow.

“[Japanese footballers] start young and the whole set-up is ideal for their development from a very young age.That is something we don’t have here.

“We would do well if we were to look up to them and try and emulate what they were doing over there. Everything was very professionally run but that also translates to the players themselves. The players over there were really really very disciplined during training and even after training.”

The AFC Cup and New Goals with Hougang

After 4 seasons with Geylang, Anders decided that it was time for a new challenge and he felt that challenge was to play in the AFC. Age is catching up with the defender, and when the opportunity came from Hougang he couldn’t refuse.

Even though he arrived at Hougang as a new player, he was greeted by many familiar faces. Hougang United head coach had previously coached Anders when he was 18 years old, and some of his peers from the Singapore Sports School were also in the squad. Joining him from Geylang was Shawal Anuar, a good friend of Anders whom he roomed together when on national duty. Shawal is also a player who followed a similar career path. Like Anders, Shawal was snapped up by Geylang in 2014 while he was playing in the NFL.

This season was the first time Hougang United and Anders played in the AFC Cup. Even though the coronavirus has temporarily suspended the continental competition, Anders has relished his time so far and is raring to go when the season resumes.

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

“It’s different from playing in the SPL. We go on a bus ride with a police escort. We’ve heard of stories where the bus gets battered and fans stop you from leaving the stadium. I mean we didn’t get any of that but it’s for precaution. [The experience] is quite fun.

“The football has been quite fun too. We played teams like Lao Toyota, Yangon United and Ho Chi Minh City – you know, good sides in Southeast Asia. The league is still our primary focus but seeing that it is our first venture into the AFC Cup, it is a good test for us.”

Even though Hougang have only won 1 of their 3 games in the group stages thus far, they can hold their heads high. After all, they beat Lao Toyota 3-1 away from home and only narrowly lost to Yangon and Ho Chi Minh. They’re still in the running for qualification. That being said, Hougang need to give it their all and win all three remaining games for any chance of qualification. That’s easier said than done, given the higher level of competition.

“There is no room for error there. When we played Ho Chi Minh, those guys were fast. We really had to be on the ball. It’s not something we get every day in the SPL.”

The coronavirus pandemic may have temporarily suspended football in the region but Anders is raring to go when everything eventually resumes. Meanwhile, he is training with his team weekly via zoom.

Anders is an underrated player but his backstory and the path he took to football makes him an exemplar for any aspiring footballer. Even though he joined the professional league late, he has reached several milestones through sheer hard work and determination. In an era where we have a small national pool, more players playing in the NFL would certainly benefit local professional clubs as well as the national team. When the league eventually resumes, look out for Anders when he plays for Hougang and while you witness his aggressive and physical playing style first-hand, just remember how he got there.

What a Small World We Live in

I could have chosen to left this part out but I felt it would be a shame to do that. Personally, I think it was kind of amusing.

As we were coming to the end of our zoom call, Anders was following me back on Instagram when out of the blue, he asks me, “How do you know Christer?”

Puzzled by the question, I hesitantly replied, “We were in NUS Stage together for a bit and we did a production together.”

Then it was my turn to inquire, “Why? How do you know Christer?”

“Christer is my brother,” Anders responds and nonchalantly adds, “I’ll tell him you said hi.”

I’m not going to lie. That little revelation at the end made me smile. What a small world we live in, indeed.