The Resilient Utility Player, A Rarity In The Modern Game: An Interview with Tajeli Salamat

I had the opportunity to talk to Tajeli the other day, and it felt good talking with the current Lion City Sailors FC centre-back. I knew Tajeli from his time at Warriors FC, my favourite Singaporean team that was unfortunately forced to sit out of the 2020 season due to financial issues. If Tajeli is an unfamiliar name to you now, just wait for him to feature for the national team. He is a tenacious footballer who will do anything to improve his game and become the best footballer he can be. This is the story of Tajeli who took charge of his career, engineered his own moves to keep the footballing dream alive, and worked hard to overcome the challenges he was faced with.

Beginnings: From Street Soccer to Professional Football

Coming from a family where no one really plays sports, it may seem like a surprise that Tajeli pursued a professional career in football. But those close to the player would know that there were signs early on that he would become a footballer. Growing up, he just loved playing the sport, and no matter whether be it a street soccer game with friends or a match with the Zhenghua Primary School Football team, he always played his heart out. He usually came home late, which led to his mother scolding him frequently.

“During my childhood days, I always get scoldings from my mother. I’ll be there [at the street soccer court] 24/7 and once I get back, she’d scold me saying ‘you don’t know how to get back is it? You just want to play soccer until when?’ So like that was the question thrown at me back then.”

While his mother may have scolded him for spending too much time on football, it was these formative days playing street soccer that shaped his footballing career. Even though he didn’t come from a footballing family, his father wasn’t going to stand in the way of Tajeli’s footballing ambitions. His father enrolled him Jurong F.C.’s youth set-up, and the player progressed through the U-League squads. During his time with the Jurong F.C. youth team, he was in the same side as Tampines custodian Syazwan Buhairi and former Lions XI player Pravin Guanasagaran. Yet, it was not until the trials for the Singapore Sports School when Tajeli played in defence. Up to that point he was deployed as a forward in both Jurong F.C. and his primary school football team.

“When I was in Primary School, I wasn’t a centre-back. I was either a striker or a winger. During the trials for [admittance into] the Sports School, we were categorized into our positions. When they were [assembling] teams to face off each other, it was a case of 11 V 10 and they needed one additional player, but that player had to play as a defender. So they asked me and I said, why not give it a try? From there, they saw that I could play in another position.

While nowadays he operates as a centre-back at Lions City Sailors F.C, it would be more apt to label him as a utility-player. Besides playing in the heart of defence, Tajeli has also played as a centre-midfielder and operated down both flanks as a fullback and a wide-midfielder. In many ways, Tajeli is like what John O’Shea was to Manchester United during the 2000s – a reliable player who can operate in multiple positions, a true rarity in the modern game.

After his time at Sports School, Tajeli didn’t want to pursue his further studies and was determined to enlist in National Service early so that he can continue his football development while he was a teenager. He was given the chance to enter the “Through train” programme, where Sports School students have a direct transition to Polytechnic education, but he declined it. Just as he was about to serve the nation, he received a call-up to play for a regional youth tournament in 2011.

“I decided to go to ITE instead so I would have an opportunity to feature in this tournament. However, I think that was the mistake because after that, they changed the age group from those born 1994 and before to 1995 and before. That was my only regret and I should have done my NS first because I think at that moment, I was blooming.

“I was in the NFA U-18 team playing in the Prime League but they promoted me to the Young Lions First team, so I represented Young Lions when I was 17, while still in ITE.”

After a season with Young Lions, Tajeli then signed for Balestier Khalsa for the 2013 season, and the Tigers went on to win the League Cup that season. He was playing brilliantly for the Tigers, who went on to win the RHB Singapore Cup in the 2013 season. However, Tajeli wasn’t able to feature in the later stages of the competition because National Service (NS) came calling that August, and it signalled an end to his footballing development. He did continue to play Sunday League football, but he never continued his development with a Prime League or S.League team.

Instead, he spent most of his time staying in camp. But it wasn’t all to bad for Tajeli. The player relished his NS experience and he even clinched the Best Recruit award for his company. Since he was part of a mono-intake with 2SIR, only the Best Recruits could be selected for the SISPEC course to become a 3rd Sergeant. With his footballing career seemingly over, he seriously considered signing on with the Army but decided to wait until after his NS to decide whether he was going to or not.

Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

Back into Football After NS & Almost Calling it Quits…

After he completed his NS in June in 2016, he was offered a chance to represent Singapore once again in another youth tournament, and he joined up with Young Lions yet again. He joined the club mid-way through the season, and at the end of the season he managed to seal a move back to Balestier Khalsa. What’s interesting is that Tajeli engineered this move all on his own.

“Back then it was coach Marko [Kraljević who was managing the club]. I think I also knew him during our time at Jurong FC and I probably refreshed his memory when I asked if he remembers. He told me that he remembers me. I just made the first step to ask if they’d be keen to have me in the team. What also helped was that I played for Balestier in 2013.”

However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the 2017 season, Tajeli was not immediately offered a contract extension by Balestier Khalsa FC, with management telling him that they would only provide him a contract pending Head Coach Marko Kraljević’s return to Singapore for the following season. That November, Tajeli worked part-time handling deliveries for RedMart while he was waiting for his contract to be renewed, something he was almost certain would happen. Then January came and SPL clubs were filling in their squads for next season. He remained hopeful of a contract from Balestier. Yet, that contract never came, and while the season went underway, Tajeli was left without a club. He tried approaching Tampines Rovers and Geylang International but since they could only offer him part-time contracts, he rejected them. It was that moment when Tajeli felt like it was time to call an end to his professional career.

Following the end of the season, for the next five months, he worked part-time with RedMart. While the job came with certain perks such as the provision of a van, which allowed him to travel around, his pay paled in comparison to what he was earning as a football player. He started applying for full-time positions, but he was unsuccessful. He even applied to sign on with the Army and the SCDF. However, during that difficult period, his then-girlfriend (now wife) was there to help him financially and it is something that he will always be grateful to her for.

“My wife supported me financially and emotionally. I don’t want to use her money, you know? So I decided to work at RedMart. She was there for me and she was just a student at ITE Ang Mo Kio working part-time. I am truly thankful to her for standing by my side.”

During this period, Tajeli, who still loved football passionately, wasn’t about to give up on his dreams totally. He went for trials with NFL teams such as Yishun Sentek Mariners for trials before being selected to play for Tiong Bahru FC. However, something didn’t sit well with the utility player. The NFL season hadn’t commenced yet, but deep down, he felt that he belonged in the SPL.

…Before a Warriors Lifeline

Tajeli decided to have one last crack at playing SPL football and ringed up Paul Poh, who was the General Manager of Warriors FC at that point in time. In 2016, Paul personally called Tajeli and offered him a contract and the player asked if there was any opportunity to play with his club.

“I asked him if he could offer me the same contract that he offered me last time. He told me to come down for a trial the next day so that the coaches can assess me and see whether I can make it to the team.”

Luck seemed to have been on the player’s side, because he put in a noteworthy performance during his trial that caught the eye of Mirko Grabovac, the then-Warriors Head Coach. Not long after, Tajeli went for a medical check-up and he went into the squad.

Tajeli enjoyed his time with Warriors partly because of his close friendship with Sahil Suhaimi. Besides being his roommate whenever the club headed to Brunei to face DPMM FC, Tajeli enjoyed playing with the Warriors no. 7 because they shared chemistry both on and off the pitch. Deployed mostly as a Right Back, Tajeli had a telepathic connection with the right-winger and they produced some brilliant linkup play. Tajeli also looks back with fondness at his playing time with Warriors and is thankful that the club provided him with a lifeline to return to the game loves.

Leaving Warriors and Starting a New Chapter with Lion City Sailors F.C

While Warriors provided a lifeline to Tajeli’s career, it wasn’t a smooth sailing journey towards the end due to the club’s financial issues.

“In Singapore, end of the day, it’s all about the money. Players need to be paid but Army also taught me well – to go with the flow. It wasn’t a case where the issue surfaced before the start or after the end of the season, when you had the time to make a decision on your career. It was during the season, so what else can you do?

“At the back of my mind, I know that money is important but I also want to be better [as a player]. I knew I can’t just focus on the now but also think of my future. I might be doing well and not paid now but I might be getting better pay in the future.”

Tajeli was with the club until they shut down, but when a better opportunity came elsewhere, he had to make the move. In fact, two clubs, Geylang International and Lions City Sailors FC, wanted to secure his services. However, Tajeli understandably went with the latter because the Sailors offered him a better contract. He needed to settle certain costs and payments that were incurred as a result of the unpaid wages fiasco at Warriors FC. As such, his time at Warriors also influenced him choosing his next destination.

While the club is still new and the team still hasn’t really had much time together given the Covid-19 Pandemic, Tajeli has been impressed by how the Sailors are making their club really professional. He cites a small example to show the club’s professionalism.

“When we go for games, we report to Bishan Stadium [the Lion City Sailors Home ground] and we’ll have our teamtalk and everything. Then we will board the bus together as a unit and move on to the stadium. So, it’s new to me. For the past clubs I’ve been, it’s always been report to the away stadium directly.”

Lion City Sailors have definitely added something fresh in a stale Singaporean landscape. The whole rebranding of Home United has been pretty impressive, and their recent launch of their youth academy has shown that they are determined to improve the quality of Singapore football. Most importantly, they have a highly rated head coach in Aurelio Vidmar. While there hasn’t been much training sessions, the Australian icon certainly embodies the professionalism of the club – an assessment that Tajeli wholeheartedly agrees with.

“I think he is a good coach, he emphasizes more on the basics. Even though we may be competent with our basics, he [Vidmar] wants us to polish it. Even small passes like short passes, it has to be firm, it has to be on the ground so that it is easy for the receiver to think ahead and turn, you know?”

The sailors are one club I will look at closely the next few seasons and hopefully, more clubs can follow in their suit.

National Team Ambitions and Future Aspirations

Tajeli also hopes to play abroad one day. One of his regrets was turning down an opportunity to play for an Australian National Premier League team. The NFA Under-18s headed over to Australia for a series of exhibition matches, where scouts from NPL and A-League clubs were present. Out of the 24 players from Singapore, Tajeli was the only one approached with an offer. While a move abroad to Australia sounded promising, he had to turn down the offer due to National Service and the fact that they required him to give a somewhat immediate answer.

Representing Singapore for the 2019 SEA Game., Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

“They wanted me to give an answer immediately. Like after I landed back in Singapore, I needed to speak to my parents and all, and then if I accepted their offer, I needed to fly back in 3 days. I remember them telling me that my visa would be done and my accommodation all taken care of.”

However, Tajeli understands that he would stand a better chance to earn a move abroad if he got called up to the national team – something he isn’t far off from. Tajeli got his first call-up to the national team in 2019 but is yet to earn a senior cap. He was called up this March for National Team training and could possibly feature for the Lions this year if Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and football was to continue.

For those that have been watching football, some of you may recognize Tajeli as one of six players publicly named by the FAS who broke curfew rules during the 2019 SEA Games following a loss to Thailand in the group stage. Personally, I think the way that the actions of the FAS were deplorable, to say the least. That however, will be for an article another day. It was the first time that Tajeli represented Singapore as a professional player and he has bounced back from the SEA Games fiasco as a stronger player, raring to earn his senior cap.

Tajeli is a fine footballer but what makes him stand out is his resilience and work ethic when he’s on the field. He has faced many challenges in his career but is unfazed by them. Instead, he works hard to overcome these challenges and become a better footballer. I firmly believe that featuring for the national team will be the gateway for Tajeli’s career to really take off. Who knows, perhaps a move to Australia might come calling again.

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