Étoile FC has a special place in S.League history, mainly because of the many records and accolades they hold. Besides being the first club in Asia to be entirely comprised of European players, Étoile holds the distinction of being the first foreign club to win the S.League and the first club in Singapore to appoint an ambassador to represent the club (that ambassador was Sidney Govou). However, after 2 seasons in the S.League, the club pulled out of the competition in 2012 and instead focused on grassroots development. Rebranded as Etoile FC Academy, the club fell off the local footballing radar mainly because they had youth teams. However, Étoile did not stagnate and instead has grown from strength to strength over the last 8 years.
In November 2019, Étoile reached a new pinnacle moment in its history when the club sent 3 of its Singaporean players for a week-long training stint with 8-time Ligue 1 winners FC Nantes. The three players who Etoile selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity were Jonathan Prashanth, 15, Indera Iskandar bin Imberan, 16, and Muhammad Ashrul Bin Abdul Kader, 16 (ages reflected are those in 2019). Coincidentally, all three players also attended Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and knew each other well through their time at Étoile and in school. Even though the stint lasted a week, it was a thoroughly memorable experience for the players, and I had the pleasure of interviewing all of them.
Travelling to France for the First Time
Jonathan, Iskandar, and Ashrul felt excited about the trip not just because they were going to train with a top-flight European club, but also because it would mark the first time they travelled to France. In fact, for Iskandar, the trip marked the first time he flew.
“I was very nervous and excited. It was my first time travelling anywhere. I couldn’t sleep the whole trip cause I was really nervous, so I ended up watching movies the entire time,” reveals Iskandar.
Together with club director Ludovic Casset, the boys departed Singapore on November 8, 2019. The trip comprised a 12-hour flight to Paris, an hour layover, and then a 2-hour flight to Nantes. Ashrul reveals how his “legs and butt cramped up because of the long flight time”, and it didn’t help he sat in the middle seat, sandwiched between his teammates. Despite the long flight time, the boys were excited when they finally landed in Paris.
During the one hour layover, the players asked to walk around to experience the cold weather, something they have never experienced before. A 2-hour flight to Nantes later, the quartet reached the FC Nantes grounds pretty exhausted. The first day was rough for the boys because they felt really homesick. It was the first time that all of them had been so far away from their families, and they really missed home. However, that feeling of homesickness gradually disappeared, and instead, the longing to remain at FC Nantes took over.
Residing on the club grounds: Breathing football 24/7
Even though language was an issue at times, they managed to get by through simple gestures, and Ludovic also acted as a translator for the youth players when he was around. However, football is truly a universal language, and the love of the beautiful game helped the Singaporean teens form bonds with the FC Nantes youth players.
The experience of living in a football academy was a refreshing and unique experience for Singaporean youth players. They were in awe at the sheer size and magnitude of the club grounds, which included a few football pitches and accommodations for both youth and senior players.
“I learned a lot about French culture and respect when I was living there. I felt so grateful that they treated me like one of their own. If I could stay there longer, I really would,” mentions Iskandar.
“It was interesting to see players living on the club grounds and even attending school together nearby. We actually went for a tour around the school,” explains Jonathan.
The players marvelled at the extent to which the players were well taken care of. The Nantes players were fed nutritious food much like a professional athlete would eat. Iskandar was shocked at how clean their meals were. He recounts how one meal comprised nothing more than empty macaroni, with olives, and chicken breast. Surprisingly, the young striker found the meal to taste nice.
Overall, their stay at FC Nantes was a really enjoyable one, and the world-class facilities on display really made them happy.
Acclimatizing and Training with the Nantes Under-17
The next morning after landing, the Singaporean trio commenced their first training session with the Nantes Under-17 team. Even though the boys felt excited, they were also nervous. What significantly intimidated the boys initially was the large physical build of their Nantes U-17 contemporaries. Besides that, other factors caused all three players to struggle during their first training session.
Ashrul mentions, “the first training session was challenging for me because the FC Nantes players were really tall and had big bodies. I was very small in comparison. They bodied me easily, and I struggled to keep possession. I also felt that I became tired more easily because of the cold weather.”
Jonathan also adds, “Before going there, I was intimidated because I know that we are smaller in physical stature. I remember one player was at least two heads taller than me and my height is 1.75m.”
“The weather was a very big issue for the three of us. It was very very cold weather. We complained a burning feeling in our chests when we were playing in the cold,” Iskandar explains.
However, after struggling in the first day of training, the players felt that they gradually performed better in the subsequent days. Jonathan and Iskandar both managed to snag in a few goals during the training matches and Ashrul also felt he adapted better defending.
The high level of professionalism and discipline that the Nantes U-17 players displayed impressed the players. Ashrul recounts how, during one of the days out with Ludo, he had bought some potato chips and brought the packet back to his room in the academy. When he offered his Nantes teammates some chips out of goodwill, they politely declined because they deemed it unhealthy for them. The episode emphasized how serious the French players took their footballing careers, and that amazed and inspired the trio.
“Our teammates never once criticized us but they always pushed me to do better. If I made a mistake they always encouraged me. I really learned about the importance of professionalism and how important the small things were,” explains Iskandar.
“They never joked around during training. They took things really seriously and it was so different to how we do things in Singapore. It was really heartening to see the French players so dedicated. They would come to training half an hour early and do their own preparation,” mentions Jonathan.
The extent of medical care available for youth team players also stood out for the players. After each training session, players that suffer injuries or discomfort are sent to the physio for assessment. Ashrul, who had been experiencing occasional pain in his legs due to a previous injury, explained how the therapists gave him advice and taught him specific exercises to help overcome the issue. On top of that, he got a relaxing massage that helped alleviate the pain.
Watching a Live Ligue 1 Fixture and a gift of a lifetime
After training, the players were also invited to watch a live Ligue 1 match between FC Nantes and Saint-Étienne. When the players reached the stadium, the players were in for a real treat. Club president, Polish millionaire Waldemar Kita, met and greeted the players, but that was not all. He also had a present for the trio: an official FC Nantes jersey that had their names and favourite numbers printed on the back of the shirts. It was a surreal moment for the players when President Kita presented the jerseys to each of them, and they all agree that they will cherish the jerseys.
“It was the first time I saw 35,000 in a stadium just supporting one team. In Singapore, not many people support Singaporean teams. Also, The FC Nantes supporters made so much noise. When the opposing team pushed their player, the fans made a lot of noise and scolded [the opposition players],” says Ashrul.
“I cannot believe my eyes. It was so crazy. There were tons of people outside. Also, sitting down and meeting the President was a real honour because they told me the president seldom meets people. When the President gave me the jersey, it was really unbelievable. I was beaming. The atmosphere was so crazy; the shouting, the cheering, all of it,” Iskandar describes.
Meeting ex-United player Fabio
Fabio da Silva now finds himself playing for Nantes, and the players had the opportunity to interview the left-back. As a life-long Manchester United fan, I won’t lie; I’m kind of jealous.
“It was a dream to meet such a player and I was really excited to meet an ex-Manchester United player. I asked him questions like ‘how was it playing with Ronaldo?’ He also talked about Rafael and how both players trained together as kids and had always intended to move to the same club so that they can play together,” reveals Ashrul, who instantly connected with Fabio because, like him, he played as a left-back as well.
“Luckily, he could speak English. I really looked up to him. He told us how he wasn’t as good as his brother but he always worked hard. He also shared his experience playing with [Robin] Van Persie,” mentions Iskandar.
The trio were over the moon when they each received personal autographs from the ex-Manchester United stalwart.
The players really wanted to meet Fabio again, and so they devised a plan. Early next morning they woke up and headed down to the first team training grounds.
Jonathan recounts, “We waited by the gates, hoping to catch hold of the Brazilian. After waiting for almost 45 minutes, he finally arrived. To our surprise, he actually remembered us and he was very friendly.”
This time, the trio came equipped with their FC Nantes scarves. Fabio happily signed their scarves, before heading for his training. Even though he only spent a little while with them, they really appreciated the gesture, and meeting Fabio was one of the highlights of the trip.
What’s Next for the Trio
Ashrul is currently studying at ITE Central and has plans to play football professionally one day. He wants to play for Balestier Khalsa if given a choice, but he knows that he needs to put in the extra work to be at the level required to play in the Singapore Premier League one day.
Jonathan, on the other hand, wants to be a veterinarian. While he is not giving up on football totally, it would appear that he will not be involved in local football for the foreseeable future. He is aiming to head to Australia to pursue his ambition and is open to the prospect of playing football in Australia part-time.
Iskandar, unlike his two peers, is on course to become a professional footballer. Despite being just 17 years old, he now turns out for Singapore Premier League side Tanjong Pagar United’s Under-21 team. While he is playing with boys way above his age, Iskandar is enjoying the challenge at hand and is keen to become even better.
Regardless of the pathway that each player chooses, they will never forget the experience that Étoile FC Academy had provided them. As an avid local fan, I think overseas training stints are a great way to expose young players to other footballing cultures, help them gain confidence, and show that they too can achieve a lot one day if they put in the hard work. Étoile is doing something right, and other local clubs can learn a thing or two from this episode.
Here’s a video of what the boys were up to in France!
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