Working Hard to Reach His Potential: An Interview with Ignatius “Iggy” Ang

To many ardent Singaporean football fans, Ignatius “Iggy” Ang is a familiar name. The midfielder has played for several local clubs and even signed for Lions XII in 2014. While he was a youth player, his coaches regarded him as a star for the future. However, he hasn’t been able to reach that potential. Throughout his professional career, Iggy has been on the peripheries of the national team and is still without a cap. Well, that’s the case for now. I think in due time, Iggy is on course for his first senior cap with the national team.

I had the opportunity to chat with Iggy the past week, and it was fantastic to chat with the player, who currently plays with Tanjong Pagar United FC. I remember Iggy well. He turned out for Warriors FC, my beloved club, in 2016 and again from 2018 to 2019. He played an integral part of the Warriors team that miraculously reached the finals of the 2019 Singapore Cup despite the club’s dire financial situation, where several wages were unpaid for months on end. This is his footballing story thus far.

Beginnings in Football

Like many of us, the midfielder started playing football when he was very young. Usually playing around his neighbourhood, he recounts tales of his friends accidentally smashing window panes and also making too much of a ruckus, which often led to neighbours lodging complaints. However, his footballing journey truly begun at Bendemeer Secondary School.

“I met my then coach, Patrick Mancha, who was a Nigerian player in the NFL. He told me one thing – that I’d play for the national team one day. Even after he left the school, he used to give me calls to check on me. He was really the first one who showed me the way of football.

“He always told me to score at least 1 to 2 goals each game and whatever he advised me to do, he was already doing in the NFL.”

Unfortunately, Iggy lost contact with Mancha and he wants to reconnect with his former coach to update on what has transpired so far.

Besides starting football properly in Bendemeer, Iggy also began to develop a keen interest in the S.League during this period. Staying opposite Toa Payoh stadium, he was an ardent Balestrier fan growing up. In addition to heading down to watch the matches live, he was also a ball boy. He even was part of the Balestier supporters group and played a significant role in creating an excellent matchday atmosphere for Balestier by playing the big drums.

As a 15-year-old, he signed up with the club he had supported years before and linked up with Balestier Khalsa’s youth team in 2007. Current Balestier head coach Marko Kraljević managed the midfielder back then, and under the German-Croat, Iggy flourished. In his first Under-16 game, despite his rawness and lack of football maturity, he scored 2 goals. He enjoyed a relatively good season at Balestier before Kraljević told Iggy to attend the NFA Under-16 trials at the end of the season. However, while not one to shy from a challenge, Iggy was apprehensive about such an opportunity.

“When coach Marko told me to go for the trials, I didn’t want to go at first because I felt I wasn’t good enough and may not be on part with them because at only 15 years old then, they had beaten the Malaysia Under-16 team.”

Kraljević recommended Iggy for the trials, and thankfully, he duly impressed then NFA under-16 coach Abdullah Noor. He went on to sign up with the NFA Under-16 side, and it was thanks to Kraljević’s insistence and recommendation that his football career took on this trajectory. Iggy would then rise through the levels and feature at the NFA under-18 level before getting promoted to the Young Lions squad in 2011. However, his tenure with the club would be a short-lived one, and after 6 months of finding a lack of opportunities, Iggy headed to Italy.

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

Sembawang Soccer Academy Fiasco and H-TWO-O Dream Team

I remember the Sembawang Soccer Academy Fiasco really well. Long story short, the Sembawang Soccer Academy launched an ambitious local initiative where it would send a squad of 24 players to Italy under the charge of Singapore icon Fandi Ahmad. The players would train at Genova International School of Soccer (GISS) with the opportunity of becoming professional footballers. However, financial issues plagued the club and they were unable to pay GISS the agreed-upon amount. GISS, unable to pay for the accommodation of the Singaporean players, then booted out the players, who were residing in a hotel in Pisa.

“I went to Italy with coach Fandi. I honestly don’t know how I went to Italy and got back [home]. We were kicked out of our hotel but we weren’t really stranded. We kept on moving from place to place for two whole months.

“It was a really ambitious project. They gave us a $1,500 allowance and we were meant to tour Italy for longer than 2 months by right. Given National Service requirements, however, we couldn’t stay out of the country for more than 2 months at a time. So, the plan was two go to Italy for two months, come back to Singapore for a week, and then we were supposed to go to Germany.”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

After coming back from their Italian adventure, some players went to pursue their interests. On the other hand, others from Sembawang Soccer Academy would then form the H-TWO-O Dream Team, who Fandi Ahmad managed. The team played friendly matches throughout the year, and the finale of that year was when the Dream Team faced up against Iggy’s old outfit, Young Lions.

“It was 2-2, but then we lost on penalties. I did score the first goal, and it was kind of special because I was playing against most of my teammates.”

The Sembawang Soccer Academy may have seemed like a disaster initially, but it is a blessing in disguise. After all, it allowed Iggy to learn from a national icon like Fandi Ahmad and also kick start his professional career.

Early Years in the Professional Career

The following year in 2012, Iggy signed up with S.League side Hougang United, where he played in both the S.League and Prime League. Iggy would look back at his time at Hougang with fondness because this was the club where he scored his first professional goal in the S.League. After a single season with Hougang, he returned to Young Lions in 2013 but opportunities were limited yet again and he needed a move elsewhere.

Then, in 2014, the biggest move of Iggy’s career happened. Lions XII, the Singapore XI that participated in the Malaysia Super League aiming to capture the footballing glory days of the 20th century, came calling, and Iggy answered that call without a moment’s hesitation. However, instead of pushing Iggy’s career into the stratosphere, the move did the exact opposite.

Yet again, he linked up with Fandi Ahmad, but this time, he never once featured for the Lions XII side throughout the season. Iggy’s confidence took a big hit.

“Maybe I was raw, or maybe I did not show coach Fandi enough? After all, Fandi knew me from my time with the Dream Team. He told me how I was a different player [from the time he was with the Dream Team] and that I needed to prove to him that I can do it. Throughout the whole season, I just kept on training, but I didn’t feature once for the team.”

In hindsight, rejoining the Young Lions was a wrong career move. At Hougang, even though he was signed as a Prime League player, Iggy was featuring consistently for the S.League team under Nenad Baćina. When Baćina moved to manage Tampines at the end of the season, the Croatian was keen on bringing Iggy with him.

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

“I remember meeting coach Baćina at Clementi Mall and he wanted to bring me to Tampines but I felt that since most of the national team players were there, there was too much competition in the squad [for my liking]. I thought I wouldn’t have the chance to play. I thought by moving to Young Lions, I would have much more chances of playing.”

In 2015, after his uneventful stint with Lions XII, Iggy linked up with Marko Kraljević yet again. Marko offered Iggy a lifeline to rejuvenate his career and gain some much-needed confidence. On top of that, he guided Iggy throughout the season. He would call Iggy into his office and go through what areas the midfielder should work on – be it whipping in more crosses or making more passes. These sessions with Marko went on to have a major impact on the player’s career.

“I think he still saw the potential in me as he once did when I was 15 years old. That season, he gave me a lot of opportunities and shouted at me a lot. I mean that year, I was nominated for the Young Player of the Year Award. To me that was a big achievement, imagine not kicking a ball in 2014, to being nominated a year later.”

Warriors, National Service, & Financial Saga.

After a stellar season with Balestier, Ignatius moved to Warriors for the 2016 S.League campaign but only would feature for half a season because National Service came calling that June. Iggy had delayed his national service call-up because he wanted to obtain his polytechnic diploma. The midfielder finished his NITEC, Higher NITEC, and then proceeded to complete his diploma in 6 years. This extended educational track explains why he was pretty old when he enlisted. Focusing on his education also gave Iggy the time to focus on his football because he still had free time on his hands.

However, enlisting put a temporary stop to his footballing career because he didn’t get released to play and train with Warriors FC, whom he was still under contract. Juggling National Service commitments and their sporting careers is a common problem that many male athletes face in Singapore. Singaporeans are called up anytime between 18 to 25, which are critical years for footballing development. A total break away from the sport can seriously hinder the efforts of footballers who aim to reach their potential. Thankfully, his footballing development was not completely stunted because he managed to play for the SAFSA (Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association) team that played in the National Football Division. Furthermore, Iggy also enjoyed his National Service because he enjoyed his vocation.

“I was in 48 SAR, and I was a tankie. I really enjoyed my NS because I drove a tank for close to 2 years. People can say that they drive a car or a bike, but not many people can say that they drive a tank. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t get released [to play for Warriors] throughout the whole time.”

Towards the end of his National Service, he did manage to train with Warriors periodically. Still, it wasn’t until he completed his National Service in May 2018 that he transited back to football full-time. However, it wasn’t a fairy tale return to the club, because he suffered an injury shortly after returning to football full-time.

“I was playing maybe 5 games. I scored two goals and assisted one in those 5 games. Then, I got injured just before Albirex. It was so disappointing. I was supposed to start against Albirex and [the way I got injured] was so stupid. We were doing some possession [drills], and I jumped for the ball, but I landed awkwardly and twisted my ankle in the process.”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

National Service had prevented him from playing the first half of the season, and his injury meant he missed a good chunk of the second half as well. After he returned from injury, Ignatius told himself that 2019 was going to be his year. Up till the moment he enlisted, Iggy had always been a student-athlete. For once, he started a season without any additional academic responsibility bearing down his shoulder. However, after starting brilliantly for the club, Iggy came down with the flu and took Medical Leave. He was told to sit out for their upcoming trip to Brunei to recuperate. This marked the end to Iggy’s starting position in the Warriors squad. He was rarely selected after that. Competition for places in Warriors that 2019 season was incredibly tough, and no one was guaranteed a starting spot.

When it emerged that Warriors FC would have to sit out the 2020 SPL season due to their financial troubles, it rocked the Singaporean footballing community. While other clubs have pulled out of the league due to financial difficulties before, both players and fans were astonished when a massive club like Warriors suffered a similar fate.

“To be honest, no one saw this coming. You know, it’s Warriors! None of us expected this, and it showed us [players] that football is insecure [when it comes to job security]. People come and go. We can’t take it for granted.”

Iggy was one such player affected by the unpaid wages issue but thankfully is getting paid back now through an instalment plan.

“The last 6 months of 2019 was a bit tough for most of us but don’t ask how we went to the finals of the Singapore Cup. When we’re on the field, we just try to win and we try to forget the financial troubles off the field. We were helping ourselves and tried to push each other. In the end, I don’t know how we managed to go on 5 months without a salary.”

Fresh Start and New Role at Tanjong Pagar

After running down his contract with the Warriors, Iggy made a trip to Phuket for a much-needed vacation from football to take his mind off things. He usually travels with 3 of his close friends and flew from Phuket to Bangkok to meet up with them. Shortly after landing, Ignatius and his friends went to a shopping centre, having some Japanese food when his phone suddenly rings.

“It was Noh Alam Shah. I didn’t know why he was calling me, and I didn’t know whether to answer. After my friend asked me what I was waiting for, I picked up the phone. I knew Noh Alam Shah on and off previously. He called and asked what my plans were for the future. I told him I didn’t know and he told me that there might be that a club might be coming [to sign him].”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

After that call, Iggy didn’t want to waste any more time. As a habit, he brings his running shoes whenever he travels and he hit the treadmill in the hotel gym the very next day. Over the next month, Noh Alam Shah was in constant contact with Iggy but he didn’t confirm Tanjong Pagar’s impending return. Thankfully, the club returned to the league and Iggy jumped at the opportunity to sign up with the Jaguars. The only regret he has is that some of his Warriors teammates had to leave professional football.

Iggy now finds himself in a unique position as a mentor to younger players in the club. When Tanjong Pagar rejoined the SPL, they were comprised almost entirely of Under-23 players, with Iggy being one of the few senior players in the squad. Usually known as a happy go lucky and playful individual, he tries his best to advise and set a good example for the younger players in Tanjong Pagar. Despite the youthful and rather inexperienced squad, Tanjong Pagar have done well for themselves. Drawing both matches against high-profile opposition, Iggy believes that the club’s future is bright.

Besides football, Iggy currently is looking to pursue a degree in Physical Education and currently holds an AFC ‘C’ license. He helps out with ActiveSG from time to time on his off days. He wants to either be a coach or an educator down the road but for now he has other immediate goals in mind.

What’s next in the immediate future for Iggy you might ask? Well, it’s simple – living up to Patrick Mancha’s assessment that he’ll play in the national team one day.

“Everyone wants to play in the national team. I’m already 28 and time is catching up. I really need to push myself now and try to earn a cap. If I don’t play for the national team, there is really nothing to talk about me. Some of my teammates in Young Lions have all gone on to establish themselves as national team players and there’s me, who’s yet to receive a call-up.”

From my interaction with Iggy, it is clear that he is going to do whatever he can to work harder and improve his game so that he can earn a senior cap for Singapore. That being said, he’s focused on helping his team first and foremost. Thankfully though, new coach Tatsuma Yoshida has breathed new life into the national team set up. While his predecessors have always chosen the same select few, the Japanese coach isn’t shy to experiment and provide call-ups to fresh faces. If Iggy continues his hard work and never give up attitude, I am sure that he’ll represent Singapore in due time.

When that happens, I’ll be sure to interview him again about that experience.

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