For Singapore footballing standards in Singapore to grow, we need to ensure that there are enough opportunities for youth players to develop. This is why football academies are essential. Given the limited number of professional Singapore Premier League clubs, and by extension, the limited number of Centre of Excellences (COEs), football academies play an instrumental role in developing our youth. These academies become institutions of formal learning for both sets of players, those who want to pursue a professional career or recreational players who want to get better.
In 2011, the F-17 football academy was launched to provide training programs tailored for male and female players across the various age groups. As one would expect from a school established by the Son of Singapore Football, the current coaching line-up is filled with a wealth of experienced personnel. Within their ranks, they have former S.league veterans, Syed Azmir, Fadhil Salim, Sevki Sha’ban and Abdul Rahman Hassan. Among them is a rising star in his own right, Habil Hakim bin Roslan. Habil is the current acting technical director with F-17. However, don’t get it wrong. Habil wasn’t handed the role on a silver platter – his story is one that exemplifies sheer hard work and determination.
I managed to speak to Habil a couple of months back (yes, I know, this is long overdue) and understanding the local football academy scene was a real eye-opener for me.
Beginnings in Football
Habil Hakim played as a goalkeeper growing up. As a young boy, he played for Tampines Rovers Under-10s and rose through their youth levels till the under-17 level. At Tampines, Habil was coached by the late David Sivalingam, who had a massive influence on Habil. He was someone that Habil regularly saw during trainings and matches, and his guidance benefited Habil a lot.
Sivalingam was an excellent coach and it is hardly surprising that Habil looked up to him. The late coach did well with the NFA U-18 team that Harris Harun featured in and guided them to winning the Prime League in 2008. What’s remarkable is that the team were unbeaten that title-winning season. Sivalingam was managing the Youth Olympics Games team before suddenly and unfortunately passed away. Sivalingam may no longer be around, but he still influences Habil in many ways.
Besides growing up playing as a goalkeeper, Habil also grew up playing the game that most football fanatics love, Football Manager. Playing the game hours on end, he fell in love with the idea of management as an alternate pathway for his footballing career. Habil was an N-Level student who completed his NITEC and was doing his Higher NITEC in mechanical engineering when he decided to drop out. As soon as he turned 18, he embarked on this new journey of football coaching and management.
“I went to take my preliminary coaching license when I was 18 and everyone there (at the course) was telling me how young I was. I mean, I did it all for the game. (At the beginning), I got attached as an assistant coach with CDC programmes at ITE Balestier and I slowly gained confidence. Then, after that, I went to National Service.
“During my National Service, I was a high elements instructor and I was already dealing with NPCC kids. So even back then, I had some certifications working with youth and safety.”
After National Service, the job hunt began for Habil who was searching widely for a full-time coaching job. Soon, he found one at a place which he still treasures up to this day. It was here that he learned a lot of valuable skills and honed his coaching ability.
Venturing into Academy Management
For the next 5 years, a Japanese Academy here in Singapore became home for Habil. This is where his journey into academy management and coaching truly started. However, the start was far from a bed of roses. Habil’s salary back then was a mere $1,000 before CPF and while most Singaporeans would be put off by such low pay, Habil seized the opportunity.
“The promise was you learn a lot for that (pay). I told myself, you know what, I’m just going to grab it. I’m fresh in this line of work and I really needed to learn a lot of things. When I spoke with my boss then, he told me that he would teach me things that other people would not and also about the academy business.”
The learning curve was steep. Habil was given a lot of tough love and he was always expected to give his best. After all, he was the only Singaporean then and was surrounded by other expat coaches from Japan as well as former Hougang United player, Robert Chinedu Eziakor (who’s currently a coach with the Cheetahs). No local coaches have ever lasted that long with the academy, but it was through Habil’s perseverance that he not only managed to survive but also become a significantly better coach.
“It was tough. I remember my first meeting. As a rookie, I did not know what to expect or do. So, I went there without any materials or without dressing properly and my mentor would look at me and tell me to go back (home). He’d tell me to think (about why I was sent home). So the next meeting, I would come with some materials, like pens and some paper for note-taking, but I would not be well dressed. So my mentor would tell me it’s not good enough and told me to go back (home) again. Then, when I was finally prepared and dressed appropriately, he let me into the meeting.
“It was like a progression and this is the same for a lot of things with the academy. We have training plans that need to be vetted and if it weren’t up to the mark, my boss would either use a pen and cross out the entire training plan or crumple the paper and throw it away.”
When Habil’s training plans got routinely rejected by his mentor, he came up with three plans instead of one. In the event where his mentor rejected the first one, I had two more at the ready for vetting. That impressed his mentor a lot and Habil learned that his mentor was trying to instil a sense of professionalism in him. His boss was no bully. He just expected a lot and set high standards so that his coaches improve.
One other big takeaway for Habil was learning the fundamentals about the business side of running academies. His mentor taught Habil everything he needed to know on how to run youth tournaments. His mentor then challenged him to find sponsors for an upcoming tournament as a means for Habil to learn, something that he learned a lot from.
After 5 years, Habil moved on to greener pastures for a new challenge. F-17 came to him with a proposal and an offer. To Habil, it was the best feeling in the world because it was a testament to how far it had grown. Instead of applying for a job, his ability and efforts had merited him an offer that was too good to turn down.
Habil was blown away by the structure of the organization and the facilities at their disposal. However, he only accepted their offer on the condition that he was able to do things his way (or instead, the Japanese way he learned at his previous academy) because he felt that the kids at F-17 could be pushed more.
According to Habil, the training plan is the most crucial element for coaching to be successful. Previously, he has encountered many coaches who do not have any training plan and go into training with whatever is in their head. When he explained it to me, it made sense why a training plan is so important for the development of youth footballers.
“If you have a training plan, you start asking yourself questions like, ‘why is this training needed?’ It allows you to (determine) how much time you would want to spend on a certain drill and what coaching points you would want to give.”
From a coach’s point of view, this is something that had been lacking in the local scene. At F-17, coaches are expected to maintain a professional image, prepare training plans, teach values, and have open communications within the coaching team.
In 2017, Habil was promoted as the General Manager of F-17. In this role, he oversees the recruitment of coaches and acts as an intermediary between the directors and coaching team. Habil has always looked up to Johor Darul Ta’zim owner, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, as a role model in how he manages. The Crown Prince of Johor has revolutionized the Johor club and have made them into a real Asian powerhouse. Similarly, Habil wants F-17 to be a platform to revolutionize football in Singapore and improve the overall footballing standards.
Since becoming GM, F-17 has secured multiple partnerships with academies overseas. In 2018, F-17 managed to secure a partnership with David Villa’s DV7 Academy in Japan. F-17 players are sent over to Japan for training stints to improve their game but also coaches learn a lot from the different training methods ran by DV7. Besides the Japan link, links had been formed in academies in Spain and Thailand. Currently, F17 has also partnered up with Wolverhampton Wanderers where the coaches in Singapore learn from their counterparts in England through webinars.
Giving a Voice to Youth Football
One thing that impressed me was how Habil runs a video podcast series called Youth Football Talk, which runs on IGTV. In this series, he gives youth footballers a chance to tell their stories and share their experiences. As someone who tries to tell footballing stories myself, I do appreciate Habil’s commitment in this initiative. These are just a few of his episodes.
I had to ask Habil this question though: What about progressing his career into managing and coaching first-team squads? He responded with the following analogy.
“There are doctors who can treat everything, and there are specialists as well. Like the specialist doctors, I want to be a youth specialist. I want to stay in this youth category. Some have been asking me why I don’t manage the Under-23s or the adults, and I mean I could do that for leisure, but it really isn’t my main interest.”
One thing is for sure, though. There are bigger things in store for Habil’s future. Recently, Habil was approached by a football academy in Japan who were interested in signing him. The academy paid for his flight and hotel and flew him to Japan for a 3-day trip to discuss a potential move. However, Covid-19 might have put a hold on Habil’s aspirations, but his future is a bright one.
I think Habil Hakim’s story shows that hard work and resilience pays off. Yes, opportunities are important but Hakim, in all honesty, is a self-made man. He started with literally nothing, and he really made the best of the opportunities that he received. This interview also gave me hope for the future of Singaporean football. Some may ridicule Project 2034, Edwin Tong’s ambitious plan for Singapore to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals, but if there were more coaches like Habil Hakim out there, it is not an impossible target. We need to work on the current generation of youth footballers to improve our footballing future.
I also am a big fan of Singaporean players and coaches venturing overseas to further their game. Players and coaches can’t expect to get better if they stay in Singapore. Moving overseas to hone their craft is necessary for development. On that note, I do sincerely hope that Habil does go to Japan and takes his coaching game to another level.
Featured Image by Habil Hakim.
P.S Shout out to our reader Mhod Mahsum for helping us reach out!
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